Questions About the Book of Abraham:
Clumsy Fraud or Sacred Scripture?
Joseph Smith not only offered the world the Book of Mormon as a divinely translated ancient text, he later produced a volume of scripture known as the Book of Abraham, translated from an ancient Egyptian scroll he obtained. This document has proven to be controversial and heavily attacked by critics of the Church. Here I discuss the controversy over the Book of Abraham and offer my views on why it is premature to abandon it. This is part of the LDSFAQ (Mormon Answers) suite by Jeff Lindsay, my attempt to deal with many common questions about The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the "Mormon Church"). While I strive to be accurate, my writings reflect my personal understanding and are subject to human error and bias.
Mormanity is my LDS blog, in operation since 2004. Numerous issues have been discussed there. Join the fray! Or visit the other blogs on my blogroll there.
Also consider my "Book of Mormon Evidences" page.
Also consider the works of Kerry Shirts at his Website (now archived), "Mormonism Researched." He also has several podcasts on the Book of Abraham: Podcast 1, Podcast 2, and an interview with a couple LDS scholars).
You can order a free Book of Mormon at Mormon.org.
This is Part 1 of a three-part document. This page deals primarily with the question of the source of the Book of Abraham (now available online at lds.org). Part 2 deals with the content of the book and Joseph Smith's comments on three Egyptian drawings that have been attached to the published Book of Abraham. Part 3, "Ancient Records Offer New Support for the Book of Abraham," looks at some of the vast body of ancient documents that confirm numerous details in the Book of Abraham that are not found in the Bible, and could not have been known to Joseph Smith.
These pages are part of the suite of "Frequently Asked Questions about Latter-day Saint Beliefs" and is solely the responsibility of Jeff Lindsay. The answers are mine and reflect my personal views, biases and opinions.
2017 Update: New Resources
A valuable chapter on the historicity of the Book of Abraham is now available as part of a free online book: 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), pp. 63-98.
2014 Update: Church Issues Statement on the Book of Abraham
The Church has issued an informative statement on the Book of Abraham, "Translation and Historicity of the Book of Abraham," in the LDS Topics area of their LDS.org website. This statement provides a review of the basics of the origins of the Book of Abraham, the story of the papyri, and so forth, while also discussing some of the many things we don't understand, such as exactly what the translation process entailed. While there are competing theories faithful LDS members can hold about what was translated and how, the Church's statement reminds us that there are evidences for ancient origins. "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." Some critics want to read the statement as a retreat from the Book of Abraham in light of their successful attacks on the record. This is a gross misreading of the statement. Far from a retreat, the statement is an affirmation of the Book of Abraham as revealed scripture with ancient origins, and to me represents significant progress in clarifying what we do and don't know about its origins. See for yourself.
Good news! See the new Website for The Book of Abraham Project at BOAP.org. I especially recommend their page, "Criticisms of Joseph Smith and the Book of Abraham." It refutes many of the anti-Mormon assaults on the Book of Abraham. Also, Michael Rhodes' fascinating article, "The Joseph Smith Hypocephalus: Seventeen Years Later," is available online. This article provides an excellent discussion of Facsimile #2 and the amazingly reasonable commentary of Joseph Smith, which could not have been fabricated based on scholarly knowledge in the 1830s. Critics, can you explain away the evidence?
Another new and helpful resource is "The Jewish Origin of the Book of Abraham" by Jonathan Moyer, a scholarly paper exploring the ancient Jewish roots of the Book of Abraham. Also see the FAIRMormon.org answers on Facsimile 3.
Aug. 2013 updates: Several corrections to past errors have been made and labeled with "2013 Update". I observe, for example, that Nibley was wrong in stating that the Joseph Smith papyri were entirely devoid of rubrics, which weakens the missing scroll argument based on physical description.
Aug. 2010 update: William Schryver at the FAIR Conference, Aug. 2010, offered an interesting new theory on the relationship between the Kirtland Engyptian Papers and the Book of Abraham. Still controversial, but with very original insights and new analysis. If he is correct, his work may weaken some of the claims that those papers show a bogus translation process underway. Schryver argues that the text was already prepared and instead, Joseph's assistants are exploring a possible code or cipher that would tie blocks of existing text from the Book of Abraham and other sources to Egyptian characters and other characters. I begin my discussion of his work and embed his videos in a post at Mormanity, "A Surprising New Twist on the Book of Abraham: The Kirtland Egyptian Papers as a Cipher for English Text". Tentative.
2008 update: Egyptologist John Gee provides a helpful overview of what we know about the Joseph Smith papyri in his article, "New Light on the Joseph Smith Papyri" from The FARMS Review, Vol. 19, No. 2 (2007). Also see "Some Puzzles from the Joseph Smith Papyri" (FARMS Review, vol. 20, no. 1, 2008) for details on the 3 Facsimiles.
The Book of Abraham is vigorously attacked by LDS critics as evidence that Joseph Smith was a fraud. There are three main areas of attacks:
I will explore each of these issues from my perspective as a Latter-day Saint. The approach and conclusions are not necessarily those of any other Latter-day Saints and some will certainly disagree with me. Especially for issue #1, the source of the Book of Abraham, there are a variety of positions held by faithful Latter-day Saints. I don't think it is necessary to accept my views or any particular position on the original source of the book or mode or of translation to still accept Joseph Smith as a prophet and the Book of Abraham as authentic ancient scripture.
I feel that the source of the Book of Abraham was probably not the tiny Book of Breathings (the Sensen scroll) which was recovered in 1966. Rather, a lengthier scroll of different physical appearance may have been used; that scroll is currently missing from the recovered set of papyrus fragments. Some LDS people feel otherwise, and different conclusions are possible.
As for the Egyptian facsimiles published with the Book of Abraham (see www.lds.org for Facsimile 1, Facsimile 2, and Facsimile 3), there are fascinating "direct hits" and "near hits" that Joseph makes in his interpretation that simply were not possible for even a scholar to do in the 1830s. However, Joseph's commentary has been heavily condemned by many Egyptologists. We will explore these issues in Part 2. While there are some legitimate challenges and problems based on our current understanding, it is simply premature and unwise to reject the Book of Abraham (and Joseph Smith) at this point.
The content of the Book of Abraham itself is widely neglected, but it is the most important issue of all. Instead of focusing on how or what Joseph translated, we should deal with the product itself and ask if it is plausible. Again, there are unanswered questions (and many "arguments from silence"), yet I am impressed by the "direct hits." I am confident that increased knowledge of ancient documents will continue to establish plausibility the Book of Abraham, as is already happening with the discovery of documents like the Apocalypse of Abraham and the Testament of Abraham.
For years critics have argued that the idea of Egyptian religious documents about Abraham was utterly ridiculous. Now many have been discovered, mostly from the same place (Thebes) and era as the source of the original Book of Abraham scroll. Given the powerful and much lengthier evidences of prophethood that Joseph Smith has already provided with the Book of Mormon, it strikes me as terribly unwise to reject the Church based on unanswered questions about the Book of Abraham (and I feel it's always foolish to base one's faith on purely intellectual arguments rather than on the rock of divine revelation).
To understand whether the tiny Book of Abraham is an authentic ancient text, one should deal with the text itself rather than the purported (and still unspecified) methods that generated it (and do it thoughtfully and prayerfully, preferably after having examined the Book of Mormon). Indeed, University of Chicago scholar Klaus Baer, who was honestly critical of what he thought to be the methods of Joseph's translation, once wrote: "Whether the resulting book of Abraham is or is not inspired scripture can ... only be told by examining the PGP" [PGP = Pearl of Great Price, in which the Book of Abraham is published] (Baer, letter to his former student, Dr. Hugh Nibley, dated Aug. 10, 1968, as cited on p. 115 of [Gee, 1992a]). (This is not to imply that Baer supports the LDS position on the Book of Abraham.)
My conclusion: the jury is not out yet. There is no reason why faithful Latter-day Saints must reject Joseph Smith or the Book of Abraham, although there still are questions and issues without easy answers at the moment.
The revealed translation of the Book of Abraham to Joseph Smith has been a fertile area for attacks on the Church, occupying much space in dozens of books, hundreds of pamphlets, and thousands of sermons. The attacks have appeared impressive to some, even enough to result in a few former Mormons (including one that I knew personally) claiming that the strength of said attacks were a factor in their leaving the Church. So let's see what the issues are.
The story of the Book of Abraham is complex and enigmatic, but in a nutshell, after completing the translation of the Book of Mormon, Joseph Smith received some ancient papyri from a find in Egypt. A part of the set, according to Joseph Smith, contained a copy of an ancient text attributed to Abraham (not that Abraham wrote the actual papyrus, which is much more recent--though the original text from Abraham was indeed "written by his own hand"--see "By His Own Hand" at FAIRMormon.org for insights into this issue). A text attributed to Joseph was also mentioned. With a prophetic gift, Joseph Smith produced a translation of at least part of the text from Abraham, although the mode of translation is unclear. A short text of just four brief chapters was published as "The Book of Abraham" and is included in the LDS volume of scripture called "The Pearl of Great Price," which also contains a writing from Moses. The published Book of Abraham describes part of Abraham's life, similar to that given in Genesis chapters 11 and 12. It begins in the land of Ur and tells how he was nearly sacrificed on an Egyptian altar by a priest of Pharaoh in the land of Ur. The text then describes a great famine which led Abraham to leave Ur and go to Haran and eventually on to Egypt. It was in Egypt where Abraham wrote the text that had been copied (in some form) onto one of the scrolls that Joseph received. The Book of Abraham also was published with three facsimiles, ancient drawings in the Egyptian style, adapted to convey some aspects of the story (the altar scene and Abraham discoursing with Pharaoh) and some doctrinal issues. The doctrinal issues include a brief discussion of our premortal existence as spirit children of Heavenly Father, and how one of these spirits openly rebelled against the Father's plan (a plan which called for mankind to be given free agency and for Christ to be sent as a Savior), seeking glory and power for himself, and was cast out, becoming Satan, the father of lies. The creation story is also given.
Joseph had stated that he planned to publish more of the translation later. The crisis in Nauvoo (the large Latter-day Saint city in Illinois from which the LDS were driven westward by mobs) and Joseph's martyrdom apparently disrupted these plans.
Jay Todd describes what happened to the papyri after Joseph's death ("Papyri, Joseph Smith," Encyclopedia of Mormonism, Vol.3):
After Joseph Smith's death, the Egyptian artifacts were held principally by his mother, and then by Emma Smith after Lucy's death on May 14, 1856. On May 25, 1856, Emma sold "four Egyptian mummies with the records with them" to Mr. Abel Combs (Improvement Era, Jan. 1968, pp. 12-16). (Pioneers brought one fragment west.) Combs then sold two mummies with some papyri, which were sent to the St. Louis Museum (1856); they ended up in the Chicago Museum (1863), where they apparently burned in 1871. The fate of Combs's two other mummies and papyri is unknown, but some papyri remained, for in 1918 Mrs. Alice Heusser of Brooklyn, a daughter of Combs's housekeeper, approached the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art (MMA) with papyri once owned by Joseph Smith. In 1947 MMA acquired papyri from her widower. In May 1966 Aziz S. Atiya of the University of Utah saw eleven Heusser fragments at MMA. He informed Church leaders, and on November 27, 1967, the Church acquired the fragments; one of them is Facsimile No. 1.
Actually, the curators of the Metropolitan Museum long knew what they had, but didn't know what the reaction of the Church would be or how best to approach the Church. Contrary to widely published stories in the media about the "discovery" of the papyri by Dr. Atiya, the Met contacted Atiya first to ask him to be an intermediary to contact the Church [Gee, 2007]. This is just one of many aspects of the story of the Joseph Smith papyri that are misunderstood in widely published reports on the topic.
As viewed by critics, the Book of Abraham was a fraud, but a "safe" one for Joseph Smith since scholars of the day lacked the ability to verify the accuracy of his work. Almost nothing was known of the Egyptian language at the time, but knowledge of Egyptian progressed over the ensuing decades. Without the scrolls, scholars were unable to examine the original Book of Abraham text, but they could deal with the facsimiles, especially #2, which contained some Egyptian writing and many figures with significance in ancient Egyptian thought. Translations of the writings were produced to show that the commentary or "translation" of Joseph Smith was wrong. Attacks of critics based on analyses of the facsimiles generally received little attention in the Church, in my opinion, because the facsimiles themselves are of little importance to most members. The facsimiles are often viewed as ornamental and are certainly of only secondary importance to the Book of Abraham itself. Church members concerned about intellectual evidences could view the commentary to the facsimiles as a prophetic recognition of divine truths alluded to in the figures rather than as a direct translation of Egyptian. However, there are very good reasons for believing that Joseph Smith was not just making things up, for there are some startling "direct hits" to be discussed below.
The plot thickened in 1966 when Dr. Atiya found the 11 surviving papyrus fragments at the Metropolitan Museum of New York. Through the kindness of the Museum and Dr. Atiya, these were presented to Church in 1967. The Church publicized the find and put the fragments on display. It is here where standard anti-Mormon literature begins howling with delight, claiming that these fragments prove Joseph Smith was a fraud. The argument runs like this: "The papyri that Joseph Smith used to translate the Book of Abraham were lost, but now have been found. Scholars have examined these papyri. They are not the Book of Abraham at all! They are an old, ordinary funerary text, the Book of Breathings. Joseph Smith's translation was not even close. The fraud has been exposed." It is left as an exercise to the reader to provide additional text expressing contempt, outrage, indignation, and utter euphoria. As a helpful tip, I will quote from one of the most recent and "authoritative" anti-Mormon writers on this topic, Charles M. Larson: "It's all over. It's all over. It's all over" [Larson, 1992]. I feel Larson's claims are essentially refuted by Michael D. Rhodes [Rhodes, 1992] and also by John Gee [Gee, 1992a].
Is it all over? No. But there are some real puzzles surrounding the Book of Abraham which will require further research to better understand. In my first serious encounters with "anti-Mormon" literature on the Book of Abraham, I was truly taken aback. Joseph Smith had divinely translated the Book of Mormon--a book for which I had received a very strong personal, spiritual witness of its truth; a book which has become more convincing and impressive with time as new findings reveal it could not possibly have been forged. How, then, could the same prophet have missed the mark so seriously in dealing with the Book of Abraham?
LDS scholars have offered two different responses. One approach is to challenge the allegation that the source of the Book of Abraham has been found. In my opinion, the evidence casts reasonable doubt on the theory that the Book of Breathings is the source, and points to a missing scroll not found among the current collections (a scroll that may have been among the papyri that Combs sold to the St. Louis Museum and which were later sent to the Chicago Museum, which museum burned in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871). Other LDS thinkers have no trouble with the Book of Breathings as the original source (in some ways, it offers a simpler explanation than the missing scroll theory), but believe that Joseph's "translation" represents an inspired restoration of a long-lost original document, with the Book of Breathings serving as a catalyst of some kind for the revelation of Abraham's original text.
Based on my understanding of the evidence, I question the assumption that the source of the Book of Abraham has been found. The standard argument used by critics of the Church is that we now have the very same papyri from which the Book of Abraham was translated, and that these papyri absolutely refute Joseph's claim to be a prophet of God. That argument is flawed. Even if my favored "missing scroll theory" is unsound, faithful Latter-day Saints can still believe that the Book of Abraham was provided by revelation, regardless of how unrelated the Book of Breathings may seem, if they consider what is meant by the term "translation" as used by Joseph Smith:
Frankly, the whole issue of how Joseph performed the "translation" still isn't important to many members, though it is the focus of critical works. There is a reason for this "shameful apathy." To believers, the Book of Moses in the Pearl of Great Price demonstrates that Joseph could produce an inspired restoration of an ancient document - a "translation" - without any physical remnant of the document before him. A similar kind of "translation" was used to produce Joseph's "inspired translation" of the Bible from the King James version, and a further example is found in Section 7 of the Doctrine Covenants, which, in part, contains a "translation" from a parchment record that John the Beloved wrote - given by inspiration without the physical use of the ancient document itself.) The many startling confirmations of the Book of Moses from ancient sources (esp. the Enoch literature) discovered after Joseph was killed bolsters the intellectual testimony of those dealing with the Pearl of Great Price. Given that "success," believers can assume that Joseph could restore the ancient Book of Abraham even if the scrolls before him contained only portions or corrupted versions of the original text.
While Joseph translated the Book of Abraham from real documents, we really do not know the process he used to produce that translation. Those who think the Book of Breathings was the source suggest that groups of characters or figures serve as catalysts for chunks of revealed truth. To me, it seems most reasonable to view the Book of Abraham as a "translation" in the more conventional sense of the word (though it was definitely performed through revelation). With that assumption, the plausibility of Joseph's work is an important issue which I address below - from my perspective.
I feel that the available evidence suggests two important points: that the rediscovered papyri do not include all of the documents that Joseph translated, and that they are not necessarily what Joseph used to generate the Book of Abraham. The first point is indisputable, while the second point is open to debate.
There is simply no question here! The existing papyri include only one of the three figures that relate to the Book of Abraham. If two-thirds of the figures are missing, how can anyone honestly maintain that we have the entire set of scrolls? Some critics often make it sound as if the full set of papyri used to translate the Book of Abraham have been found, not letting the reader know that at least some of it is missing.
I will explore some of the details behind this conclusion immediately below, but let me begin with an excerpt from Dr. John Gee, the BYU Egyptologist (Ph.D. from Yale) who has studied the papyri and their history in detail for many years:
Eyewitnesses from the Nauvoo period (1839--1844) describe "a quantity of records, written on papyrus, in Egyptian hieroglyphics," including (1) some papyri "preserved under glass," described as "a number of glazed slides, like picture frames, containing sheets of papyrus, with Egyptian inscriptions and hieroglyphics"; (2) "a long roll of manuscript" that contained the Book of Abraham; (3) "another roll"; (4) and "two or three other small pieces of papyrus with astronomical calculations, epitaphs, &c." Only the mounted fragments ended up in the Metropolitan Museum of Art and thence were given back to the Church of Jesus Christ. When eyewitnesses described the vignettes as being of the mounted fragments, they can be matched with the fragments from the Metropolitan Museum of Art; but when the vignettes described are on the rolls, the descriptions do not match any of the fragments from the Met. Gustavus Seyffarth's 1856 catalog of the Wood Museum indicates that some of the papyri were there. Those papyri went to Chicago and were burned in the Great Chicago Fire in 1871. Whatever we might imagine their contents to be is only conjecture. Both Mormon and non-Mormon eyewitnesses from the nineteenth century agree that it was a "roll of papyrus from which our prophet translated the Book of Abraham," meaning the "long roll of manuscript" and not one of the mounted fragments that eventually ended up in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.That sums things up nicely. For more information on the scrolls and their apparent length, see "Formulas and Faith" by John Gee [Gee, 2012a].
[References cited by Gee have been omitted in this excerpt - see Gee's paper for those.]
Charles Larson and others argue that there were only two papyrus scrolls in the original collection and that we have those papyri now (critics of Joseph Smith must so argue, for their case depends on this critical point, while some LDS also accept it without difficulty, though it is not an important issue to them). Were there only two scrolls? No. There were at least four scrolls and other documents as well, including the Papyrus of Hor, the Papyrus of Semminis, the Papyrus of Noufianoub, and the Papyrus of Amenophis (A Guide to the Joseph Smith Papyri by John Gee [Gee, 2000, pp. 10-13]). The surviving Joseph Smith papyri represent at most 13% of the original collection. The Joseph Smith papyri contain fragments from three of the scrolls; the Papyrus of Amenophis is known only from a partial copy [Gee, 2000,pp. 12].
One could conclude that there were only two scrolls based on a statement on page 349 of Volume 2 of the Doctrinal History of the Church (partly written by Joseph Smith, with some entries done later by scribes and historians, following unorthodox record keeping practices; the section referred to here was taken from a letter written by Oliver Cowdery, which I assume was incorporated into the History with Joseph's approval). The entry says that Mr. Chandler, who allegedly discovered the scrolls, found two scrolls and other small papyrus fragments inside the coffins he opened. On the other hand, a journal entry of June 25, 1835 (several months prior to the section taken from Oliver's writings) states that Michael Chandler brought some mummies to Kirtland "together with some two or more rolls of papyrus covered with hieroglyphic figures and devices" [Nelson, 1979, p. 88]. By "two or more," did he mean that there were two "good" rolls or large rolls along with other papyri that could be called rolls but might also be called fragments? This possibility seems consistent with other evidence I discuss below. Apart from these brief statements, Joseph does not specify how many scrolls there were, to my knowledge.
Further evidence for two rolls, however, comes from W. W. Phelps, who was a scribe for Joseph. In a letter dated July 19-20, 1835 [Phelps, 1835], he wrote:
"The last of June, four Egyptian mummies were brought here; there were two papyrus rolls, besides some other ancient Egyptian writings with them. As no one could translate these writings, they were presented to President Smith. He soon knew what they were and said they, the "rolls of papyrus," contained the sacred record kept of Joseph in Pharaoh's court in Egypt, and the teachings of Father Abraham.
Since the existing fragments are from two different scrolls, the Book of Breathings and the Book of the Dead, it is easy to assume that our fragments are equivalent to the two scrolls Phelps and Cowdery mention. However, both also refer to other writings as well. Perhaps the existing fragments may be from those "other" writings and fragments. In any case, several accounts suggest that there were more papyrus documents (perhaps at least three scrolls) than the existing fragments from the Metropolitan Museum. Furthermore, in my opinion, physical descriptions (appearance, length, and state of preservation) of the two major scrolls that Joseph worked with (the Book of Abraham and Book of Joseph) rule out the Book of Breathings as the source of the Book of Abraham.
Many people assume that the only papyri Joseph had were the rolls said to have sacred writings from Abraham and Joseph. However, James R. Clark [Clark, 1968, p. 198] notes that this common assumption may be rash:
Between October 1 and December 31, 1835, there are fifteen individual entries in Joseph Smith's journal referring to the papyri, the mummies, and/or the records. Six of these entries call the papyri "Egyptian records." Six additional entries refer to the collection as "ancient records" or "records of antiquity." In another entry he calls them simply "the papyrus." Only in one entry does Joseph Smith refer to them as "sacred records." The important point here seems to be that while in July, 1835, Joseph Smith referred to one roll as containing "the writings of Abraham" and "another the writings of Joseph of Egypt," in subsequent references during the three month period when he was working most intensively with them he spoke of the papyri simply as "Egyptian records" or "ancient records." These numerous entries should at least raise a caution against any assumption that the entire collection of papyri that Joseph Smith had was exclusively the record of Abraham and Joseph. The fact that these two documents were considered most important by the Prophet may have led to that faulty assumption.
While there was special mention of two scrolls with writings of Abraham and Joseph, we learn that there may have been three scrolls in the best description that we have of the original mummies. This is found in a non-LDS newspaper, the Painesville Telegraph, from an article of March 27, 1835, entitled "Mummies," as cited in [Peterson, 1995, pp. 116-117]:
There was found with this person [mummy no. 1] a roll or book, having a little resemblance to birch bark; language unknown. Some linguists however say they can decipher 13-36, in what they term an epitaph; ink black and red; many female figures.
[Mummy] No. 2 ... found with roll as [mummy] No. 1, filled with hieroglyphics, rudely executed.
[Mummy] No. 3 ... had a roll of writing as No. 1 & 2....
The possibility of more than two scrolls is also found in a newspaper account of the mummies and records while they were on display in Philadelphia, before they were brought to the Latter-day Saints. The Daily Intelligencer, of April 9, 1833, p. 2 (as cited by Peterson, 1995, p. 91-92) refers to the mummies found in Thebes, and says that in addition, "several rolls of papyrus, obtained at the same time, are also exhibited." The word "several" usually means more than two. The uncertainty may stem in deciding whether or not to label as "rolls" some of the smaller fragments included with the major writings.
Further, there is an intriguing description of Chandler's mummies and papyri from the Cleveland Whig of March 25, 1835 [Peterson, 1995, p. 112] which mentions a booklike writing of multiple leaves, found with one of the four mummies displayed:
"There was found deposited in the arms of the old man referred to above, a book of ancient form and construction, which, to us, was by far the most interesting part of the exhibition. Its leaves were of bark, in length some 10 or 12 inches, and 3 or 4 in width. The ends are somewhat decayed, but at the centre the leaves are in a state of perfect preservation. It is the writing of no ordinary penman, probably of the old man near whose heart it was deposited at the embalming. The characters are the Egyptian hieroglyphics; but of what is discourses none can tell....There is also another book, more decayed, and much less neatly written - its character and import involved in like mystery."
Dr. Peterson (p. 115) states that the two booklike writings mentioned in the Cleveland Whig "were in addition to the rolls," though one could argue that lengthy scrolls, when rolled up, might be mistaken for a booklike set of papyrus leaves. In any case, the eyewitness account of the reporter for the Cleveland Whig raises the possibility of lengthy papyrus documents. The well preserved "book" appeared significant enough to be called "by far the most interesting part of the exhibition."
What we have now, called the Joseph Smith Papyri, are fragments that had been cut from scrolls and mounted on stiff backing paper and/or on glass. At least part of the papyrus scrolls were mounted on glass by 1837 [Gee, 1999, p. 8]. In 1840, an anonymous visitor from Montrose, Iowa, writing in the Quincy Whig, also refers to the Egyptian records being mounted on glass [as cited by Clark, 1968, p. 201; see also Gee, 1999, p. 8], including at least one fragment dealing with Abraham:
He [Joseph] then walked to a secretary, on the opposite side of the room, and drew out several frames, covered with glass, under which were numerous fragments of Egyptian papyrus, on which, as usual, a great variety of hieroglyphical characters had been imprinted.
These ancient records, said he, throw great light upon the subject of Christianity. They have been unrolled and preserved with great labor and care. My time has been hitherto too much taken up to translate the whole of them, but I will show you how I interpret certain parts. There, said he, pointing to a particular character, that is the signature of the patriarch Abraham.
A statement from H. Caswall, given below, confirms that by 1842, the fragments that we have apparently were already mounted.
Given that people saw papyrus fragments mounted on glass in 1840, the fact that people later saw papyrus rolls that apparently were not mounted indicates that the mounted fragments were only part of a larger collection. For example, in May 1841, William I. Appleby recorded in his journal that he "saw the Rolls of Papyrus and the writings thereon, taken off the bosom of the male mummy" [Gee, 1999, p. 8]. Appleby speaks of rolls, not flat mounted fragments.
In 1856, when some and perhaps most of the papyri were in a museum in St. Louis, a teacher at Concordia College, Gustavus Seyffarth, mentioned seeing at least one "papyrus roll" [ibid.], showing that at least part of the collection had not yet been mounted onto flat glass or paper.
Further evidence for the existence of long documents in the papyrus collection that Joseph Smith had - documents that we do not have today - comes from an 1843 description from a non-LDS visitor to Nauvoo. This visitor, Charlotte Haven, met with Lucy Mack Smith, Joseph's mother, and wrote a rather critical letter to her own mother about the experience:
"Then she [Mrs. Smith] turned to a long table, set her candlestick down, and opened a long roll of manuscript, saying it was 'the writing of Abraham and Isaac, written in Hebrew and Sanscrit," 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 above passage raises several questions, to be sure. Was Mother Smith actually reading the scrolls or repeating the stories that went with them? And are the references to Hebrew and Sanskrit a mistake on the part of Charlotte or Mother Smith? It would seem that Charlotte has erred in mentioning "Abraham and Isaac," when Mother Smith would have heard frequent reference to the writings of Abraham and Joseph (not Isaac). These are minor errors that are typical in relaying new experiences to others. The significant thing, in my view, is that Charlotte refers to two rolls that existed at a time when other rolls had already been mounted on glass. She also refers to content in these rolls which differs from the existing fragments and from the published Book of Abraham. (Note in particular that the description of the serpent is different from a related fragment found in the recovered Joseph Smith papyri.) Charlotte Haven was critical of the Church on several counts and was not trying to bolster the case for Joseph Smith as a prophet.
Charlotte said Mother Smith opened a long roll. Weren't the papyrus scrolls fragile and falling apart? Isn't that why they were mounted on glass? Then why would Mother Smith risk damaging them by casual handling for a visitor? Good question, but I think the answer may be that some of the scrolls were poorly preserved and had to be mounted on glass, while other scrolls - possibly including the document from which the Book of Abraham was translated - were in much better shape. (Eventually, though, it appears that most or all were mounted on backing paper and some on glass.) In fact, Oliver Cowdery's description said that the document from which Joseph derived the Book of Abraham was "beautifully written" and "in perfect preservation" (Doctrinal History of the Church, Vol. 2, p. 348) - in contrast to the poorly preserved fragments that were falling apart and had to be mounted.
The idea that not all of the papyri were mounted, at least for a while, is confirmed by a source which stated that "by January 4, 1838, there were at least 'two undivided thirds'" [Todd, 1992]. It is unknown what portion had been mounted in 1842, but we can assume it was at least a third of the text.
Thus, we have evidence that not all of the Joseph Smith Papyri were mounted. John Gee concludes that "at least two long rolls were destroyed in the Chicago fire" [Gee, 1999, p. 9], including one that contained Facsimile 3. Some argue that a statement from Henry Caswall proves there were no other documents available than the fragments that we now have (fragments taken from two scrolls). Caswall was a critic of the Church who visited Nauvoo, looking for things to criticize. Here is the quote from his article, "The Mormons" [Caswall, 1842] :
"The storekeeper... drew forth a number of glazed slides, like picture frames, containing sheets of papyrus, with Egyptian inscriptions and hieroglyphics. These had been unrolled from four mummies, which the prophet purchased at a cost of twenty-four hundred dollars. By some inexplicable mode, as the storekeeper informed me, Mr. Smith had discovered that these sheets contained the writings of Abraham, written with his own hand while in Egypt. Pointing to the figure of a man lying on a table, he said, 'that is the picture of Abraham on the point of being sacrificed. That man standing by him with a drawn knife is an idolatrous priest of the Egyptians."
Though Caswall played fast and loose with the truth in his tales about his visit to Nauvoo (see Part 3 of [Nibley, 1961]), he did accurately describe some of the papyri (JS Papyrus IIIA-B), making it reasonable to conclude that at least some of the papyri were mounted at the time of his 1842 visit. However, in the context of Caswall's fanciful description of his brilliant and impressive dealings with the poor, gullible people of Nauvoo, I question some details of his story (you can read much of Caswall's general account in [Nibley, 1961], which was written before the Joseph Smith Papyri were an issue). However, it is true that there was a store in Nauvoo that was part of the same building where Joseph worked with the papyrus fragments, so it's entirely possible that a storekeeper did have access to mounted papyrus documents. If Caswall was shown the papyri by the unnamed storekeeper and the storekeeper has been accurately quoted, then the storekeeper believed the mounted papyri to contain at least part of the Book of Abraham. Much or all of the Book of Abraham probably was eventually mounted on backing paper or glass, but the Charlotte Haven letter suggests that at least part of the major scrolls had not been mounted until some time after Caswall's visit, and Gustavus Seyffarth's statement above indicates that at least one unmounted roll survived as late as 1856. Perhaps "these sheets" in Caswall's quote of the unnamed storekeeper could be a reference to the papyrus records as a whole, and not necessarily to whatever papyri were being displayed to Mr. Caswall. It's unclear - and probably not important. After Joseph's death, there are references to the scrolls being mounted and stored in a chest of drawers. I am unaware of clear references to still unmounted scrolls after 1843.
As an aside, I must point out that the storekeeper's alleged statement was incorrect in saying that the "sheets" had been written by Abraham's own hand. I don't think that is what Joseph said, although the published translation indicates that the translation contains "The writings of Abraham while he was in Egypt, called the Book of Abraham, written by his own hand, upon papyrus." To me, that means that the original writing of Abraham was upon papyrus, but need not imply that whatever Joseph used as the source was the very same piece of papyrus that Abraham originally used. In fact, when Joseph first published excerpts from the Book of Abraham, his introduction stated that the record was:
A Translation of some ancient Records, that have fallen into our hands from the Catecombs [sic] 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. [Emphasis added. Times and Seasons, 1, March 1, 1842, as cited by Book of Abraham Project, Appendix V, https://www.boap.org/LDS/BOAP/SecondEd/Draft-copy/AppendixV-JS-Commentary-on-BOA.pdf. ]
For Joseph to use "purporting" in this document is consistent with the idea that he understood they weren't physically prepared by Abraham. In fact, the papyri were produced many centuries after the death of Abraham. It was the original text that Abraham wrote by his own hand, not the copy (in whatever form) that had been made on the papyrus scrolls that Joseph received (
John Gee suggests that there is further evidence for the existence of more scrolls, based on the observation that "Egyptian papyrus documents almost universally pertain to only one individual" [Gee, 1992a, p. 108]. He then infers from information on the existing fragments, the Kirtland papers, and the facsimiles that there must have been several other scrolls in the set - "documents from at least five different individuals" whom he names (Amenhotep the son of Hor, etc.). Gee then poses this question (p. 109):
"If we have all the papyri Joseph Smith had, where, might we ask Mr. Larson, are Facsimiles 2 and 3, the roll belonging to Amenhotep, or all the strange vignettes which those who saw the papyri in Nauvoo describe? If there are documents we do not have, by what clairvoyance do Larson and his fellow critics proclaim what was or was not on them?"
Finally, recall that the history of the scrolls after Joseph's death shows that the papyri were split into at least two groups, one of which apparently was burned in the Chicago Fire:
"Combs ... sold two mummies with some papyri, which were sent to the St. Louis Museum (1856); they ended up in the Chicago Museum (1863), where they apparently burned in 1871. The fate of Combs's two other mummies and papyri is unknown, but some papyri remained, for in 1918 Mrs. Alice Heusser of Brooklyn, a daughter of Combs's housekeeper, approached the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art (MMA) with papyri once owned by Joseph Smith."
A St. Louis newspaper, The St. Louis Daily Missouri Democrat, ran an advertisement on Aug. 14, 1856 (as cited in Peterson, 1995, p. 208), about an exhibition which included the mummies and papyri that Combs had sold. The ad mentioned "TWO MUMMIES from the Catacombs of Egypt, which have been unrolled, presenting a full view of the RECORDS enclosed, and of the bodies which are in a remarkable state of preservation" (emphasis original). Explicit confirmation that these records were from Joseph Smith's collection is given in an article from the same newspaper on June 12, 1857, apparently in response to questions about the authenticity of the papyri:
THE MORMON PROPHET'S MUMMIES - Not long since, we stated that the mummies and accompanying Egyptian manuscripts at the museum were the identical mummies and manuscripts formerly found by Smith the mormon prophet. They were purchased by the proprietor of the museum from Mr. A. Combs, who bought them at Nauvoo city on the 26th of May, 1856. In a work published by "the saints" is a facsimile of the manuscripts with the information added that they were written by the great Jewish patriarch, Abraham himself. Doubt having still been expressed that they were the prophet's mummies, etc., we now append the certificate with which the sale of them to Mr. Combs was accompanied.
[Peterson, 1995, p. 209]
The bill of sale then followed. Within just 10 weeks of Combs' acquisition, two of four mummies and several papyri were in St. Louis. Apparently, the records in St. Louis included at least one facsimile that had been published with the Book of Abraham. Another article dated May 13, 1857 in that newspaper states that "certain plates issued by the elders as facsimiles of the original ... are also facsimiles of the hieroglyphics in the museum" [Peterson, 1995, p. 209].
It appears that Combs sold some of the papyri related to the Book of Abraham and that these were later destroyed in the Chicago Fire. However, a daughter of his housekeeper later brought the surviving Joseph Smith Papyri fragments to the Metropolitan Museum of New York. Is it really safe to assume that these fragments were THE papyri that Joseph Smith said contained the Book of Abraham, when at least part of the papyri were sold by Combs? Perhaps Combs sold the more interesting or extensive part of his collection and his housekeeper ended up with "the leftovers." In my view, it's entirely reasonable that there were other scrolls besides the surviving fragments. If the other scrolls were long and well preserved, the tiny and damaged Book of Breathings and Book of the Dead fragments might not have even been considered "scrolls" but could have been counted as being among the "other fragments" in the collection, though this is speculation on my part.
For further details, see "The Case for the Phantom Papyri" (archived).
The 11 fragments of the recovered Joseph Smith papyri apparently come from two scrolls, one the Book of Breathings, and the other the Book of the Dead. Fragments X and XI, are from a form of the Egyptian Book of Breathings, also called the "Sensen" scroll. The Tanners and many other critics, along with some sincere LDS thinkers, have long claimed that this was the source of the Book of Abraham because:
Thus, one can argue that the beginning, middle, and end of the Book of Breathings corresponds to the Book of Abraham, showing that Joseph Smith translated from it. Some sincere LDS thinkers have accepted this argument without challenging their confidence in Joseph Smith as a true prophet. However, there are several weaknesses with this view, while there is also important evidence for the opposing "missing scroll theory." My view is that descriptions of the scroll used to produce the text of the Book of Abraham show it could not have been the Book of Breathings. Depending on the assumptions one makes, this issue is either irrelevant, of academic interest only, or of monumental importance. My view notwithstanding, there are some interesting and puzzling relationships between the Book of Abraham and the Book of Breathings (for example, could Egyptian Jews have adopted the Book of Breathings and/or the Book of the Dead as a vehicle for Abraham's story, or did a scribe put some items from the Book of Abraham into a Book of Breathings format?).
John Gee [Gee, 1992a, p. 106] quotes the most recent (in his knowledge) non-LDS Egyptologist to have examined the Joseph Smith papyri as saying that "the Pap. Joseph Smith XI and X containing the Book of Breathings were wrongly identified by others with Joseph Smith's Book of Abraham" (the source for the quote is listed as Zondhaven in Annual Egyptological Bibliography 1977, 180-181).
The critical evidence, in my opinion, is the physical description of the original scroll that Joseph used in his translation. I now provide an important observation from Dr. Hugh Nibley, who has firsthand knowledge of the physical condition and appearance of the scrolls. Nibley writes:
"The Prophet Joseph himself has supplied us with the most conclusive evidence that the manuscript today identified as the Book of Breathings, J.S. Papyri X and XI, was not in his opinion the source of the Book of Abraham. For he has furnished a clear and specific description of the latter: 'The record of Abraham and Joseph, found with the mummies, is (1) beautifully written on papyrus, with black, and (2) a small part red, ink or paint, (3) in perfect preservation.'...
Since Joseph Smith actually possessed quite a number of perfectly preserved, beautifully written Egyptian manuscripts adorned with rubrics [red characters], there is no reason to doubt that he was describing such a document as the source of 'the record of Abraham and Joseph.' And there can be no doubt whatever that the manuscript he was describing was and is an entirely different one from that badly written, poorly preserved little text, entirely devoid of rubrics, which is today identified as the Book of Breathings. One cannot insist too strongly on this point, since it is precisely the endlessly repeated claim that the Book of Breathings has been 'identified as the very source of the Book of Abraham' on which the critics of Joseph Smith have rested their whole case...."
[Nibley, 1975, pp. 2-3]
Nibley has been criticized for assuming that a statement from Oliver Cowdery which was included in the Doctrinal History of the Church was written by Joseph Smith. However, the account Nibley cites is slightly different from the text that Oliver provided, and appears to be from Joseph's journal entry of Dec. 31, 1835 [Nelson, 1979, p. 88] rather than the Doctrinal History of the Church. The journal entry is written in the first person (from Joseph's perspective), though it obviously uses much of the text that Oliver Cowdery had written. Nevertheless, it reads, "The record of Abraham and Joseph, found with the mummies, is beautifully written on papyrus, with black, and a small part red, ink or paint, in perfect preservation." There appears to be no distinction between the physical appearance of the two major scrolls considered. Whether from Oliver or from both Oliver and Joseph, the physical description needs to be considered. However, those who accept the Book of Breathings as the source for the Book of Abraham feel that Oliver's description does not mean that both scrolls met that description. They suggest that Oliver was only describing the most memorable scroll.
Oliver's description, which is part of a long letter he wrote (quoted more fully below), is as follows:
"Upon the subject of the Egyptian records, or rather the writings of Abraham and Joseph, and may I say a few words. This record is beautifully written in papyrus with black, and a small part, red ink or paint, in perfect preservation. The characters are such as you find upon the coffins of mummies, hieroglyphics and etc., with many characters or letters exactly like the present, though perhaps not quite so square form of the Hebrew without points.
"These records were obtained from one of the catacombs in Egypt. . . . " (emphasis added)
There are obviously multiple Egyptian records in the collection, but apparently referring to the writings of Abraham and Joseph in particular, Oliver says "this record." Then, in discussing how the scrolls in general (the whole set) were found, it's back to "these records." LDS writers were used to referring to the Book of Mormon as a record containing multiple writings of prophets. I think it's fair to read Oliver's statement as referring to sacred writings of Abraham and Joseph as a record which, like the multiple papyri described by Chandler, shared the characteristic of having beautiful red and black writings, almost as if they came together as a set or larger volume. Trying to force Oliver's statement to refer to the record of Joseph alone, and divorcing the physical description from the Book of Abraham, does not appear to be firmly supported by the text. To argue that Oliver refers to the entire set of records in general but means that only one tiny part actually had red and black writings seems like a highly strained reading.
We have further evidence about the physical appearance of the records Joseph translated from another eyewitness, Robert Horne [Horne, 1893]. Horne describes a time in Nauvoo when Lucy Mack Smith allowed him to handle the papyrus records with his own hands. He said, "The records which I saw were some kind of parchment or papyrus, and it contained writing in red and black. Mother Lucy told me that one was the writings of Abraham and the other the writings of Joseph, who was sold in Egypt." Again, the original scroll(s) used to produce the Book of Abraham - as well as the scroll for the Book of Joseph - are described, as I read the statement, as containing red and black ink, in stark contrast to the rubric-free Book of Breathings. Others may differ, suggesting that only one scroll (actually, a part of a scroll) could contain writing in red without falsifying Horne's description: "it contained writing in red and black." The word "it" refers to the parchment or papyrus that contained "records." There is no hint that the description of the records only applied to the Book of Joseph and not the Book of Abraham. If the Book of Abraham were taken from Book of Breathings, lacking any red printing, then it is curious that neither Oliver nor Mr. Horne noted the difference, appearing instead to describe both in common terms.
Another description of the Egyptian records is found in the Warren Foote Autobiography (typescript, BYU-S, p.5 - p.6):
In the afternoon we went into the [Kirtland] Temple, and saw the mummies and the records which were found with them (we went to the prophet's house to see him. This is the first I saw him, and shook hands with him). Joseph Smith Sen. explained them to us, and said the records were the writings of Abraham & Joseph, Jacob's son. Some of the writing was in black, and some in red. He said that the writing in red, was pertaining to the Priesthood.
Once again, an eyewitness describes the writings of Abraham and Joseph by mentioning red and black writing, without giving any indication that this description did not apply to the Book of Abraham. We are told specifically that the red writing pertained to the Priesthood. Does the Book of Abraham have passages dealing with the Priesthood? Absolutely. In fact, the Priesthood may be the dominant theme in the first two chapters. The book begins with Abraham telling of his desire to obtain the Priesthood:
And, finding there was greater happiness and peace and rest for me, I sought for the blessings of the fathers, and the right whereunto I should be ordained to administer the same; having been myself a follower of righteousness, desiring also to be one who possessed great knowledge, and to be a greater follower of righteousness, and to possess a greater knowledge, and to be a father of many nations, a prince of peace, and desiring to receive instructions, and to keep the commandments of God, I became a rightful heir, a High Priest, holding the right belonging to the fathers.
It was conferred upon me from the fathers; it came down from the fathers, from the beginning of time, yea, even from the beginning, or before the foundation of the earth, down to the present time, even the right of the firstborn, or the first man, who is Adam, or first father, through the fathers unto me.
I sought for mine appointment unto the Priesthood according to the appointment of God unto the fathers concerning the seed. (Abraham 1:2-4)
His life is threatened by a pagan priest, but God delivers Abraham and gives him the true Priesthood (Abraham 1:18,19). Later, in Chapter 2, the covenant God makes to Abraham is expressed in terms of the Priesthood:
And I will bless them that bless thee, and curse them that curse thee; and in thee (that is, in thy Priesthood) and in thy seed (that is, thy Priesthood), for I give unto thee a promise that this right shall continue in thee, and in thy seed after thee (that is to say, the literal seed, or the seed of the body) shall all the families of the earth be blessed, even with the blessings of the Gospel, which are the blessings of salvation, even of life eternal. (Abraham 2:11)
Then in Chapter 3, we learn of the premortal existence, where God selected and foreordained his rulers - apparently Priesthood leaders.
Warren Foote's description of the Egyptian scrolls that he saw once again lumps the two books together with a description of red and black writing, but goes further in identifying the red writing with Priesthood passages. The Book of Abraham contains multiple passages dealing with the Priesthood. That doesn't prove that the source of the Book of Abraham had writing in red, but it is consistent with that theory. Finally, before the Joseph acquired the papyri from Michael Chandler, seven doctors (all non-LDS) had signed a certificate describing the mummies and the papyri, which certificate Chandler put on a placard for advertising the find. The "Certificate of the Learned," as the placard called it, says that the "papyrus, covered with black or red ink, or paint, in excellent preservation, are very interesting" (reprinted in Times and Seasons, Vol. 3, May 2, 1842, p. 774). Again, we find papyrus records in the plural being linked to red ink and excellent preservation. It is possible that the description of red ink and excellent preservation applied to only one part of the set (the incomplete Book of the Dead), but in no case do we have a description suggesting that the most important scroll or scrolls looked like the Book of Breathings.
By the way, there apparently was an obvious difference in quality between the three scrolls described in the Painesville Telegraph of March 27, 1835 (quoted above). One scroll was described as "rudely executed," possibly in contrast to both of the other scrolls. Perhaps the "rudely executed" scroll provided the fragments that we now call the Book of Breathings - or perhaps they were part of the miscellaneous fragments found with the other scrolls in the first place. In any case, it seems to me that the Book of Breathings was NOT what Joseph said he was translating.
If the Book of Breathings does not fit the physical description offered by several witnesses of the scroll Joseph used to translate the Book of Abraham, then the primary argument used to condemn the "translation" has been severely weakened. If the Sensen text (Book of Breathings) was not the source of the Book of Abraham, then the alleged impossibility of obtaining the Book of Abraham from that source is irrelevant. However, there are still unanswered questions, particularly regarding Facsimile 1. It was attached to the Book of Breathings, so if Facsimile 1 is part of the published Book of Abraham, then doesn't it follow that the Book of Breathings was the source of the Book of Abraham? Let's explore this issue in more detail:
Some related resources to consider on this topic:
The main "puzzle" used to challenge Joseph Smith's translation of the Book of Abraham is the fact that Facsimile 1, the opening figure of the Book of Abraham mentioned in the text (Abraham 1:12) was physically attached to the Book of Breathings. The Book of Breathings, fragments of which are found in the Joseph Smith papyri, therefore appears to belong to the scroll that was used to generate the Book of Abraham. Since the Book of Breathings text does not discuss Abraham, one can argue that the Book of Abraham was translated improperly.
Before discussing reasons why Facsimile 1 might have been attached to a scroll other than the one people saw and described as the Book of Abraham, note that Facsimile 1 is NOT the ordinary mummified figure that one sees in the Book of Breathings. The Book of Breathings typically depicts a person who is dead and wrapped in cloth, which would be totally unrelated to the Book of Abraham. But Facsimile 1 has a person who is clearly alive, with one leg up in a way that precisely puts the person in the position shown in the hieroglyph denoting prayer (I present the graphical evidence for this in Part 2, about one-third of the way down in the text). Unlike any ordinary Book of Breathings figure, here we have a person who is alive and praying, as described in the Book of Abraham (1:15). Whatever is or was in the attached text that went with Facsimile 1, there is a reasonable case that the figure attached to it--Facsimile 1--is related to the text of the Book of Abraham.
Abraham 1:12 says, "and that you may have a knowledge of the this altar, I refer you to the representation at the commencement of this record." Does this require that the Book of Abraham was taken from the Book of Breathings? No. There are other possibilities. One valuable source to consider is "The Lost Book of Abraham: Investigating a Remarkable Anti-Mormon Claim" by Ben McGuire at FAIRLDS.org, which deals in part with this issue.
One possibility to consider is that the scroll attached to Facsimile 1 could have been included as part of a related collection, and the statement in Abraham 1:12 was added by a scribe to refer to the related figure. Whether Abraham ever drew and mentioned an original figure or not, the figure mentioned in the text on the scrolls may have become an adaptation of what once had been a common figure from the Book of Breathings. Perhaps the reference to a document in Abraham 1:12 may, in this scenario, make reference to a collection of related scrolls. An alternative possibility is that the comment in Abraham 1:12 about the figure, or just the key phrase "at the commencement of this record," may have been added by Joseph Smith as an editorial remark. We have other such examples of clearly editorial insertions to clarify text from his translation of the Bible, and also in his translation of the Book of Mormon. The "commencement of the record" therefore may refer to the published Book of Abraham, and not necessarily the scroll from which the Book was translated. In that case, Joseph may have understood that Facsimile 1 in a different scroll showed a scene related to the Book of Abraham text, and incorporated that figure into the Book of Abraham. Likewise, the other two figures (Facs. 2 and 3) clearly come from different scrolls and have also been incorporated into the Book of Abraham, though they have less to do with the text than Facsimile 1.
Another possibility is that there once was a figure attached to the Abraham scroll, but it was missing and replaced with a related figure in a different scroll. The particular version of the Book of Breathings attached to Facsimile 1 may have been understood to be related to the Book of Abraham - a relation which some of Joseph's companions (and perhaps Joseph himself) noted or suspected as they tried to link some characters from the Sensen scroll to the already completed translation.
Note that none of Joseph's comments and translations about the facsimiles say that they were drawn by Abraham--an important point to consider. The Book of Abraham is written in the first person, but the captions and translations of the Facsimiles are in the third person, as if they were taken from another source. The facsimiles appear to be in a style that was developed long after Abraham (esp. Facsimile #2). Perhaps they were created or redone by later Egyptians, perhaps some of the many Jewish settlers in Egypt, to portray some events from the Book of Abraham. I also wonder if Abraham adopted a Book of Breathings text to his story, or did a later scribe do this? This is part of the enigma of the Book of Abraham (though those who accept the Book of Breathings as the source of the Book of Abraham have a different set of puzzling questions to deal with - if they accept the Book of Abraham as authentic). Regardless of these problems, I feel that what Joseph used to produce the Book of Abraham was not the poorly preserved text which some say he must have used. The evidence of eyewitnesses about the appearance and length of the document virtually rules out that assumption, in my opinion.
As I have mentioned above, some suggest that the physical description of the Book of Abraham was really a description of another scroll, claimed by Joseph to be the Book of Joseph. Some further suggest that we have this scroll now among the recovered Joseph Smith Papyri as the Book of the Dead. Again, some faithful LDS people have no difficulty with these propositions, though critics point to it as evidence of fraud since none of the existing fragments appear to deal with Joseph or Abraham. Let's delve into this for a moment:
The following text has been posted in the alt.religion.mormon USENET group and was kindly sent to me by its author, with permission to use it. I have not included the first half of the text which provides background and presents the case for two scrolls (Oliver Cowdery's letter refers to two scrolls, and W. Phelps spoke of "two scrolls and other ancient writings" with respect to the Books of Abraham and Joseph). The argument is made that the Book of Abraham was taken from the existing fragments, since Facsimile 1 was attached to the Book of Breathings. The author then argues that the existing fragments from the Book of the Dead were the Book of Joseph:
Let us return once again to the description of the papyrus under dispute. Both the DHC and Cowdery's letter contain the same description. We can break the quote down into points as follows:
a) ...beautifully written upon papyrus...
b) ...with black, and a small part, red ink or paint...
c) ..in perfect preservation...
(DHC Vol 2, p. 348 and [Cowdery, 1835]).
We have already observed that the Book of Breathings does not match this description. But what of the other roll, the Book of the Dead? This roll, it turns out, is 'beautifully written', is in a good state of preservation, and, most important of all, contains numerous, easily visible rubrics (red paint). The conclusion is obvious. When Oliver Cowdery gave his description of '...the writings of Abraham and Joseph...', he gave pride of place to the Book of the Dead roll, and tended to leave the Book of Breathings out of his discussion. Is there any evidence to back up this conclusion? Yes - later in the same letter, Cowdery gives a description of the 'record'.
'The representation of the god-head--three, yet in one, is curiously drawn...'
'The serpent, represented as walking, or formed in a manner to be able to walk, standing in front of, and near a female figure...'
'Enoch's pillar, as mentioned by Josephus, is upon the same roll.'
'The inner end of the same roll, (Joseph's record), presents a representation of the judgment.'
The first three of these figures can easily be picked out of the Book of the Dead scroll now in the possession of the Church. (They are contained on papyrus fragments JSP IV and JSP V). The inner end of the roll was not recovered with the other papyri from the New York Met, but, if it followed the many other copies of the Book of the Dead still extant, it would have contained a vignette of the deceased being led into the presence of Osiris, as described by Cowdery.
There is therefore strong evidence that the papyrus roll that Joseph Smith said contained the writings of Joseph in Egypt is now in the possession of the Church....
There is therefore no basis for the charge that there is a 'missing scroll' from which the Book of Abraham was translated. Further, in examining the handwritten manuscripts of the Book of Abraham, made by Joseph Smith's scribes under his direction, it soon becomes obvious that the Book of Breathings was, in fact, the very source of the Book of Abraham, as used by the Prophet. "
While concurring that the Book of Breathings does not contain red characters and does not appear to be "beautifully written" or "perfectly preserved," the argument is offered that the description of a scroll having red ink only applies to only one of two scrolls, and that the scroll with the red ink was the Book of Joseph, not the Book of Abraham. However, the description of the original scrolls makes no distinction between the Book of Abraham and the Book of Joseph. To say that Oliver was "giving pride of place" to only one record while seeming to describe both is unconvincing to me. Furthermore, other eyewitnesses, as noted above, described the papyrus records containing the writings of Abraham and Joseph in much the same terms, mentioning red and black ink, giving no hint that the two records looked different.
Further, I am not convinced that the Book of the Dead as found in the Joseph Smith Papyri (fragments IV and V in particular) is what Oliver Cowdery described, though the evidence can be viewed both ways. A portion of Oliver's description was offered above. Let's now examine his words more fully. The following is from Oliver Cowdery [Cowdery, 1835], with emphasis given to some phrases that will be important later:
"Upon the subject of the Egyptian records, or rather the writings of Abraham and Joseph, I may say a few words. This record is beautifully written on papyrus with black, and a small part, red ink or paint, in perfect preservation. The characters are such as you find upon the coffins of mummies, hieroglyphics and etc., with many characters or letters exactly like the present, though perhaps not quite so square form of the Hebrew without points.
"These records were obtained from one of the catacombs in Egypt, near the place where once stood the renowned city of Thebes, by the celebrated French traveller Antonio Sebolo [Lebolo], in the year 1831. . . .
"On opening the coffins he [Chandler] discovered that in connection with two of the bodies, were something rolled up with the same kind of linen, saturated with the same bitumen, which, when examined, proved to be two rolls of papyrus, previously mentioned. I may add that two or three other small pieces of papyrus, with astronomical calculations, epitaphs, &c. were found with others of the Mummies. . . ."
My note: there are two rolls that were "previously mentioned" - rolls with red and black ink. The small Book of Breathings - the few tiny fragments (JSP IV and V, and Facsimile 1) could well have been included among the other small pieces of papyrus found. Now on to page 235:
"While Mr. Chandler was in Philadelphia he used every exertion to find someone who would give him the translation of his papyrus, but could not satisfactorily, though from some few men of the 'first eminence' he obtained in a small degree the translation of a few characters.
"Here he was referred to Brother Smith. From Philadelphia he visited Harrisburg, [Pennsylvania] and other places east of the mountains, and was frequently referred to Brother Smith for the translation of his Egyptian relic.
"It would be beyond my purpose to follow this gentleman in his different circuits to the time he visited this place, the last of June or first of July, at which time he presented Brother Smith with his papyrus. Till then neither myself nor Brother Smith knew of such relics being in America. Mr. Chandler was told that his writings could be deciphered, and very politely gave me privileges of copying some four or five different sentences or separate pieces, stating at the same time, that unless he found someone who 'could give him a translation soon he would carry them to London.'
"I am a little in advance of my narrative. The morning Mr. Chandler first presented his papyrus to Brother Smith, he was shown by the latter, a number of characters like those upon the writings of Mr. C. [Chandler] which were previously copied from the plates containing the history of the Nephites, or Book of Mormon.
"Being solicited by Mr. Chandler to give an opinion concerning his antiquities, or a translation of some of the characters, Brother J. [Joseph] gave him the interpretation of some few for his satisfaction. . . .
"The language in which this record is written is very comprehensive, and many of the hieroglyphics exceedingly striking. The evidence is apparent upon the face, that they were written by persons acquainted with the history of the creation, the fall of man, and more or less of the correct ideas of notions of the Deity. The representation of the godhead -- three, yet in one, is curiously drawn to give simply, though impressively, the writers views of that exalted personage. The serpent, represented as walking, or formed in a manner to be able to walk, standing in front of, and near a female figure, is to me, one of the greatest representations I have ever seen upon paper, or a writing substance; and must go so far towards convincing the rational mind of the correctness and divine authority of the holy scriptures, and especially that part which has ever been assailed by the infidel community, as being a fiction, as to carry away, with one might sweep, the whole atheistical fabric, without leaving a vestige sufficient for a foundation stone. Enoch's Pillar, as mentioned by Josephus, is upon the same roll. -- True, our present version of the bible does not mention this fact, though it speaks of the righteousness of Abel and the holiness of Enoch, -- one slain because his offering was accepted of the Lord, and the other taken to the regions of everlasting day without being confined to the narrow limits of the tomb, or tasting death; but Josephus says that the descendants of Seth were virtuous, and possessed a great knowledge of the heavenly bodies, and, that, in consequence of the prophecy of Adam, that the world should be destroyed once by water and again by fire, Enoch wrote a history or an account of the same, and put into two pillars one of brick and the other of stone; and that the same were in being at his (Josephus') day. The inner end of the same roll, (Joseph's record) presents a representation of the judgment: At one view you behold the Savior seated upon his throne, crowned, and holding the sceptres of righteousness and power, before whom also, are assembled the twelve tribes of Israel, the nations, languages and tongues of the earth, the kingdoms of the world over which Satan is represented as reigning. Michael the archangel, holding the key of the bottomless pit, and at the same time the devil as being chained and shut up in the bottomless pit. But upon this last scene, I am able only to give you a shadow, to the real picture. I am certain it cannot be viewed without filling the mind with awe, unless the mind is far estranged from God: and I sincerely hope, that mine may never go so far astray, nor wander from those rational principles of the doctrine of our Savior, so much, as to become darkened in the least, and thereby fail to have that, to us, the greatest of all days, and the most sublime of all transactions, so impressively fixed upon the heart, that I become not like the beast, not knowing wither I am going, nor what shall be my final end!
"I might continue my communication to a great length upon the different figures and characters represented upon the two rolls, but I have no doubt my subject has already become sufficiently prolix for your patience: I will therefore soon cease for the present. -- When the translation of these valuable documents will be completed, I am unable to say; neither can I give you a probably idea how large volumes they will make; but judging from their size, and the comprehensiveness of the language, one might reasonably expect to see a [work] sufficient to develop much upon the mighty acts of the ancient men of God, and of his dealing with the children of men when they saw him face to face. Be there little or much, it must be an inestimable acquisition to our present scriptures, fulfilling, in a small degree, the word of the prophet: for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.
"P. S. You will have understood from the foregoing, that eleven Mummies were taken from the catacomb, at the time of which I have been speaking, and nothing definite having been said as to their disposal, I may, with propriety add a few words. Seven of the said eleven were purchased by gentlemen for private museums, previous to Mr. Chandler's visit to this place, with a small quantity of papyrus, similar, (as he says) to the astronomical representation, contained with the present two rolls, of which I previously spoke, and the remaining four by gentlemen resident here.
Consider the many elements Oliver mentions. Some say that three of these can be found in fragments IV and V. An obvious match is the walking serpent, for fragment V depicts a serpent standing on two legs, its tail poised as high as its head, standing in front of, but removed from, a woman. But this does not seem to be the same drawing that was on the scrolls Oliver referred to, for Charlotte Haven, the non-LDS visitor to Nauvoo mentioned above, also described the walking serpent that she saw on one of two rolls (and this at a time when our fragments of today apparently were already mounted). She said the serpent "was standing on the tip of his tail, which with his two legs formed a tripod, and had his head in Eve's ear." Fragment V shows a serpent that is not standing on his tail, that does not form a "tripod," and that does not have his head near the woman's ear. I suggest that she saw a scroll other than the present Book of the Dead.
Previously, I could not recognize a three-yet-one depiction of the godhead in the Joseph Smith papyri, but I stand corrected, for a closeup photo of fragment 4 (kindly sent to me by a non-LDS student of this topic) shows a drawing that could be interpreted as a three-in-one image. It almost looks like a profile of three people sitting next to each other. Three heads are visible in the profile, but it looks like there are two bodies, not just one, yet it could be the image (or type of image) that Oliver referred to. (Another figure on that fragment is nearly identical to one of the figures on Facsimile 2, so we need not assume that the figures on any of these fragments are unique and were not present on other portions of the scrolls that Joseph had.)
The third Book of Joseph image that is said to be recognizable in the Book of the Dead is the pillar of Enoch. One of the figures on fragment V shows what could be a pillar - looking like a short column (ca. 4 feet high) with a scepter on top. Could this be "Enoch's pillar"? Oliver describes it as an astronomical representation, and in his "P.S." again mentions an "astronomical representation" in the scrolls he has described. I see nothing on this plain diagram to suggest astronomical depictions of any kind. The issue is unsettled, but it could be what Oliver saw.
Most noteworthy is the judgment scene that Oliver describes as being so magnificent and complex. The citation above from a critical source, as posted to a USENET group, says that the final portion of the Book of the Dead, missing from the recovered fragments, "would have contained a vignette of the deceased being led into the presence of Osiris, as described by Cowdery." This argument fails, in my opinion, for the typical Osiris scene in the Book of the Dead - which I have seen - is quite unlike the overwhelming, awe-inspiring (at least to Oliver) depiction that Oliver described. Could anyone please show me a Book of the Dead vignette featuring anything close to the "twelve tribes of Israel," the nations and kingdoms of the world "over which Satan is represented as reigning," or "Michael the archangel, holding the key of the bottomless pit," in which the devil is being chained? Of course, some may suggest that Oliver was reading these things into a much simpler but related image, but my reading of his words makes that seem improbable. I could be wrong, but I feel it is difficult to completely fit Oliver's description into the Book of the Dead, though there is a correspondence for at least two figures.
Again, it is important to note that the existing fragments show common elements and relationships to the scroll or scrolls that Joseph said contained the records of Abraham and Joseph. I think that the Joseph Smith papyri have some relationship to the scrolls that contained the Book of Abraham and Joseph, but suggest that they are not the same.
If Oliver thought that Joseph was translating the lengthy Book of Abraham, with its potential to fill volumes, from the tiny Book of Breathings, he must have thought that a single character could generate huge quantities of text. However, he mentions that he copied 4 or 5 sentences from the scroll for Joseph to translate. Joseph translated some of the characters, and Oliver saw nothing out of the "ordinary" compared to the translation process for the Book of Mormon. Oliver compares the Egyptian characters to those of the Book of Mormon. In the translation of the Book of Mormon, there was no evidence of single characters generating whole paragraphs of text. There appeared to have been a reasonable correlation between symbols and words, as in other languages. It looks like something similar happened for the Book of Abraham. If Joseph were suddenly attributing hundreds of words to a single character, Oliver should have been surprised, but instead he talks about copying sentences from the scroll and having Joseph translate them in a matter analogous to the Book of Mormon translation.
If Oliver recognized that groups of characters formed single sentences, and also imagined that volumes of sacred writings could be extracted from the scrolls, does it make any sense that any of the tiny fragments among the existing papyri were what he was referring to? I suspect he was referring to larger scrolls (yes, the plural is used in the record of Combs' sale) that were sold away only to perish in Chicago, and that the other fragments were smaller in comparison, though related and interesting, and containing Facsimile 1 and other related figures.
A further reason for rejecting the few, tiny Joseph Smith Papyri fragments as the scrolls that Oliver referred to is their size. The existing fragments are few and small, typically only a few inches in extent. Oliver was uncertain as to how big the published "volumes" would be, "but judging from their size, and the comprehensiveness of the language, one might reasonably expect to see a [work] sufficient to develop much upon the mighty acts of the ancient men of God..." [Cowdery, 1835] . This points to records of considerable length.
Further, a non-LDS visitor, William S. West (whose 1837 brochure about his visit to Nauvoo is cited by Peterson, 1995, p. 25) said that the scrolls had enough material to fill a book larger than the Bible, hardly consistent with the tiny set of fragments we now have. Joseph spent many days translating the Book of Abraham, and had enough text already translated (but not published) to require hours to read, in contrast to the 30 minutes now needed to read the published version of the Book of Abraham, as related by Anson Call in 1838 (cited by Peterson, 1995, p. 140).
According to Hugh Nibley, Preston Nibley in 1906 visited the Nauvoo House with Joseph F. Smith who recalled "the familiar sight of 'Uncle Joseph' kneeling on the floor of the front room with Egyptian manuscripts spread out all around him, weighted down by rocks and books, as with intense concentration he would study a line of characters, jotting down his impressions in a little notebook as he went" [Nibley, 1968-a, pp. 17-18]. The 12 fragments in the existing collection can be comfortably placed on an averaged size desk for study, as Peterson personally attests [Peterson, 1995, p. 156], and would not occupy a large floor area as described. Also, if the papyrus documents that Joseph was studying had all been mounted on glass or backing paper, they would not have to be weighted down with rocks (though it is possible the mounting occurred later).
Finally, recall the letter of Charlotte Haven, another non-LDS visitor. She said that Mother Smith "opened a long roll of manuscript, saying it was 'the writing of Abraham and Isaac.'" It was not a short, stubby little fragment or two, but a long roll. Joseph's translation came from at least one lengthy scroll.
To me, the evidence suggests that the tiny collection of Joseph Smith Papyri is incomplete, and that the physical descriptions of the Books of Abraham and Joseph do not correspond with the existing fragments. Again, descriptions of both the physical appearance and the length contradict major claims of the critics. While there is still plenty of room for doubt (and for belief!), the case for the Sensen scroll (the Book of Breathings) as the source for the Book of Abraham seems inconsistent on multiple counts with some of the evidence, though there are reasons for seeing things otherwise.
I see the "missing red and black scroll" theory as a reasonable position: the scroll that Joseph Smith "translated" (used in the generation of the Book of Abraham - by whatever means) is missing and is not contained in the small set of fragments we have now, even though the existing fragments were related and were part of the original set of documents. Perhaps our humble Sensen fragments were already in fragment form when discovered, or perhaps they were the third "rudely executed" scroll found with one of the mummies, but I think they were not taken from the two major scrolls containing the writings of Abraham and Joseph, scrolls that were beautifully written with red and black ink, perfectly preserved, and so long and comprehensive as to generate volumes and cover a floor.
Of course, I could be wrong. Certainly some faithful LDS thinkers see things differently, as I have tried to show above.
Since the surviving fragments of the Joseph Smith papyri contain portions of the Egyptian Book of the Dead, many critics have asked how we can believe that there was a Jewish Book of Abraham at all that was included with or attached to a pagan scroll. Actually, there are examples of such things happening among Egyptian documents. Here is one answer from the FAIRMormon.org response to the Search for the Truth DVD (2007):
The issues surrounding the translation of the Egyptian papyri that resulted in the Book of Abraham are much more complex than critics would like us to believe. Foremost, it is significant to realize that we don't have all the papyri that were originally owned by Joseph. Of the five scrolls originally owned by Joseph, only eleven fragments of two scrolls have survived--one of which is an Egyptian Sensen text containing the vignette for Facsimile 1 from the LDS Book of Abraham. Basically, we don't know exactly what was missing, so we can't say for certain that Joseph Smith's papyri collection didn't contain a document that could translate into the Book of Abraham.
But why, some might ask, would a Book of Abraham be present among ancient Egyptian funerary scrolls? We know from other ancient documents that sometimes scrolls with different material were attached together. Some ancient copies of the Egyptian Book of the Dead, for example, have been found to contain a variety of other non-funerary texts including stories similar to the sacrifice of Abraham (involving different personalities), temple rituals, and more. Yale-trained, professional Egyptologist Dr. John Gee estimates that about 40% of known Sensen texts have other texts attached to them.
Some Egyptian papyri, for example, contain Egyptian instructions on one side and Semitic writings on the back side--in one case Psalms chapters 20-55. One Egyptian temple archive (with an extensive collection of Egyptian rituals), provides an early copy of the "Prayer of Jacob" and two copies of the "Eight Book of Moses" with a discussion of the initiation into the temple at Jerusalem. Both Moses and Abraham are mentioned in this collection and the most commonly invoked deity is Jehovah.
Finally, we know that ancient Israelites sometimes used Egyptian symbols to convey religious teachings. Many Biblical scholars, for instance, believe that an ancient Egyptian book--the Instructions of Amenemope--may have been the source for portions of the biblical book of Proverbs. An ancient Testament of Abraham also seems to have a connection to the Egyptian Book of the Dead.
It is not unlikely--in fact it seems plausible in light of other documentary discoveries--that an ancient Book of Abraham was attached to the Egyptian papyri owned by Joseph Smith. Properly interpreting the Egyptian elements in the Facsimiles may well require that we understand how Jewish authors understood and adapted such elements.
The critics' "irrefutable evidence" is anything but.
Critics have argued that Facsimile 3 has nothing to do with Abraham, but is a well known vignette depicting a common scene from the Book of the Dead 125. Facsimile 3 was attached to the end of Book of the Dead 125, and was followed by another book from which only a couple of opening words remain, ending before the title was given. But was this figure known to be part of the Book of the Dead 125? John Gee addresses this and related issues in his chapter, "Facsimile 3 and Book of the Dead 125," Chapter 7 in Astronomy, Papyrus, and Covenant, ed. John Gee and Brian M. Hauglid (Provo, Utah: Brigham Young University, 2006), pp. 95-105, available online for FARMS subscribers. Here is a useful excerpt, which begins by noting how judgment scenes originally associated with another book, Book of the Dead 30B, became associated with Book of the Dead 125:
Taken as a whole, only a minority of Eighteenth Dynasty vignettes associate the judgment scene with Book of the Dead 125, and almost as many associate the judgment scene with Book of the Dead 30B. The switch in vignettes has caused many Egyptologists to identify examples of Book of the Dead 30B incorrectly as Book of the Dead 125 because they apparently looked only at the vignette and did not read the text.
The association of the judgment of the dead with 30B makes sense because Book of the Dead 30B mentions the judgment and the weighing of the heart, whereas Book of the Dead 125 does not. After the 26th Dynasty, the judgment of the dead vignette is consistently attached to Book of the Dead 125 in copies of the Book of the Dead. From this, we can conclude that vignettes can be used for texts other than those with which they were originally associated. Thus, the argument usually advanced by critics of the Book of Abraham, that because a vignette from a text is similar to a vignette from a funerary text it must therefore retain its full funerary meaning, is an invalid argument.
This is quite telling, as both Facsimile 1 and Facsimile 3 are assumed to belong to the Book of Breathings Made by Isis because they accompanied the text in the Joseph Smith Papyri. Yet the contemporary parallel texts of the Book of Breathings Made by Isis belonging to members of the same family have different vignettes associated with them. Instead of a scene like Facsimile 3, most Books of Breathings Made by Isis show a man with his hands raised in adoration to a cow. This indicates that the facsimiles of the Book of Abraham do not belong to the Book of Breathings.
Gee then observes that Facs. 3 very obviously is not a standard part of the Book of the Dead:
The problems with the theory that Facsimile 3 is the vignette from Book of the Dead 125 can be most readily shown by a single quotation from the latest known copy of the Book of the Dead, written in Demotic in A.D. 63. This Book of the Dead has no vignettes; instead it has a written description of the vignettes demonstrating clearly what elements the Egyptians thought were essential in the judgment scene:
The forty-two gods [in front of] the deceased above the hall of the truths; a figure of Hathor, [lady] of the underworld carrying a was-scepter, protecting the man, while the two arms of the scale are straight and Thoth is on its left, to the right of its [. . .] while Horus speaks, and Anubis grasps it on the side on which are the two truths (Maats) while he is opposite on the other side of the scale. Thoth reads the writings since a scroll is in his hand [. . . Ammut] in whose hand is a knife and before whom are a sword and a scepter, Anubis holding his hand. A lotus with two supports on which are the four sons of Horus. A chapel in which Osiris sits on his throne there being an offering table with a lotus before him. Isis is behind him praising, and Nephthys is behind him praising.
A careful comparison of this description with actual vignettes of Book of the Dead 125 shows that the major elements are all in this picture: Here are the forty-two gods. Here is the hall of the truths. This is the figure of the goddess holding a was-scepter. Here is the man. The two arms of the scale are straight. Thoth is on the left of the scale. Horus has his hand raised in a gesture of speaking. Anubis is grasping the side of the scale in which the figure representing truth is seated. The man is shown placing his heart upon the scale. Thoth is shown reading or writing something. Ammut is clearly present, and although this particular illustration omits the knife in his hand, it is shown on other copies of the same scene. The scepter is nearby. Here is the lotus with the four sons of Horus atop it. This is the chapel in which sits Osiris, with the offering table and lotus in front of him. In this particular scene, Isis and Nephthys are not standing behind him, but they are found on other scenes.
If we compare this description with Facsimile 3, we find that the description does not match at all: Facsimile 3 lacks the forty-two gods. It is missing Hathor holding the was-scepter. There is no balance-scale. Thoth is missing from the left side of the nonexistent scale. Horus is missing. The figure generally identified with Anubis is not grasping the side of the scale, but the waist of the man. Since Thoth is not depicted, he cannot be shown reading anything. Ammut is absent, along with the knife, sword, and scepter. The lotus is missing the four sons of Horus atop it. Though Osiris is shown sitting, he is not depicted seated within any chapel. Almost all of the elements which the Egyptians thought were important for the scene are conspicuous by their absence from Facsimile 3. Significantly, these elements are present in a vignette accompanying Book of the Dead, chapter 125, found among the Joseph Smith Papyri, as well as other copies of vignettes of Book of the Dead, chapter 125. These elements are present in all the judgment scenes that the critics would compare with the Facsimile 3. The elements of the judgment scene as listed in the Demotic Book of the Dead are consistent with those of earlier judgment scenes. Their absence from Facsimile 3 indicates that Facsimile 3 is not a judgment scene and is not directly associated with Book of the Dead 125.
Far from being, as one critic [Charles Larson] claimed, "the single most common form of Egyptian funerary scene known" (which is not true even of Book of the Dead 125), the real parallels to Facsimile 3 have not yet been publicly identified.
Key points, then: (1) In Egyptian documents, it's possible for scenes from other books to be adapted to new book; (2) the scene in Facsimile 3 is not one commonly associated with the Book of the Dead text that preceded it; and (3) it is not a common funerary scene.
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 Sensen 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 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 because we have many lines of text for single characters - and what kind of translation is that?
I think that the argument becomes weaker or even irrelevant in light of important evidence. First of all, I feel that the evidence discussed above shows that the Sensen scroll was NOT what Joseph Smith used to produce the translation of the Book of Abraham (though this can be debated). Apart from that issue, an examination of the Kirtland papers shows that they were not Joseph's tools in producing the Book of Abraham. For example, on March 9, 1842, as the Book of Abraham text was being prepared for publication, Joseph Smith made marks for revisions and corrections on his Book of Abraham manuscript (HC 4:518, 543-48). I presume that many other such marks were made during the translation and preparation of the text prior to March 9. None of the Book of Abraham manuscripts in the Kirtland Papers show such editorial marks [Gee, 1995b, p. 226], making it seem unlikely that any of the Kirtland Papers could have been Joseph's working papers for the translation.
It is commonly alleged that Joseph spent a lot of time working on an Egyptian "Alphabet and Grammar" to aid in translating Egyptian. His journal entry of July 5, 1835 says,
"I was continually engaged in translating an alphabet to the Book of Abraham, and arranging a grammar to the Egyptian language as practiced by the ancients." [Nelson, 1979, p. 88].
Apparently some passages of his "journal" were written by scribes and later historians, adding to the confusion. But accepting the above statement as Joseph's, it is still not clear what Joseph was doing. However, it is unlikely that his work is available today in the so-called (and often ridiculed) Egyptian "Alphabet and Grammar." I quote now from Gee [Gee, 1995b, pp. 226-227]:
Between October and December 1835 Joseph Smith mentions exhibiting the papyri fifteen times, translating four times, transcribing once, but the "Egyptian alphabet" was mentioned only once [the entry for Oct. 1, 1835; see The Papers of Joseph Smith, 2 vols., ed. by Dean C. Jessee, Deseret Book, SLC, UT, 1989-92]. The original entry in the handwriting of Oliver Cowdery deserves careful examination: "October 1, 1835. This after noon labored on the Egyptian alphabet, in company with brsr. O. Cowdery and W.W. Phelps: The system of astronomy was unfolded." It has been generally assumed that the "Egyptian alphabet" is the Kirtland Egyptian Papers Egyptian manuscript (hereafter KEPE) #1 or the so-called Egyptian Alphabet and Grammar. This is highly unlikely as (1) KEPE 1 is in the handwriting of W.W. Phelps and Warren Parrish; (2) it was four weeks later, on 29 October 1835, that Warren Parrish "commenced writing for me [Joseph Smith]" (see Jessee, 1:112-1113; 2:56); (3) the title of the manuscript is "Grammar & aphabet [sic] of the Egyptian language." If any of the Kirtland papers are to be identified with the documents referred to in the journal entries it would be KEPE 3-5, in the handwritings identified as those of W.W. Phelps, Joseph Smith, and Oliver Cowdery and bearing the titles ... "Egyptian alphabet." Thus, there is no solid evidence that Joseph Smith worked on KEPE 1, the so-called Alphabet and Grammar, during this period of time, or at any period of time.
An outstanding article on the Kirtland Egyptian Papers is Hugh Nibley's "The Meaning of the Kirtland Egyptian Papers" [Nibley, 1971]. The primary historical records indicate that Joseph spent very little time working with an alphabet or grammar, that his brief and sporadic time spent on that topic was primarily before the Kirtland papers begin; that most of his time spent translating the records occurred long after his associates had quit working on the so-called alphabet and grammar; and that the evidence points against the theory that it was used in translating anything at all. The only "Grammar" in the Kirtland Papers is just a page-and-a-half long, treats only 23 Egyptian characters, and is in the handwriting of W.W. Phelps. Nibley assesses it as "a work of no practical value whatever, and never employed in any translation" [Nibley, 1971]. Those who claim it was part of the process Joseph used to translate the book have yet to show how it could be used for any sort of a translation at all - fraudulent or otherwise.
Joseph went to great lengths to publish his revelation and to make his authorship clear. None of the Kirtland papers were ever published, nor were they mentioned or acknowledged in any official Church publication. No authorship is claimed for them, and certainly no prophetic gift is claimed in their production. Joseph felt it was important to clarify who the author or translator of records was, and his name always appears prominently with his writings and translations - not so with the Kirtland papers. Latter-day Saints have no need to apologize for them or to accept them as anything more than somebody's musings.
Larson shows 4 pages of the papers (Book of Abraham manuscript 1) to suggest that Joseph Smith translated the Book of Abraham from the characters on the left, but Gee [Gee, 1992a, p. 113] points out that these pages are mostly in the handwriting of Warren Parrish (with a half page at the beginning by W. W. Phelps). More importantly, the Egyptian characters in the margins were obviously added AFTER the English text had been written down. Parrish's English text flows smoothly and continuously, as if written in one steady stream copied from an original document, while the characters at the side get cramped together as if someone were trying to fit them into space that had already been constrained by the English text. Parrish's English text shows no sign of being produced as a translation from material to the left. If the Egyptian had been written first, the English text would have been unevenly spaced to adjust to the spacing of the characters (and probably would have had numerous additions, corrections, etc.). It appears that some of Joseph's associates were examining relationships between Egyptian characters in the Book of Breathings and the Book of Abraham text - after the translation of that first part of the book had been completed.
Readers can see for themselves the evidence that the characters in the margins of the Book of Abraham manuscripts were added after the English text was already there. Six detailed photos are provided by John Gee in A Guide to the Joseph Smith Papyri [Gee, 2000, p. 22; note: the photos are in the printed version only, not the online text]. These high-quality photographs "show that the characters (1) were written in different ink than the English text ..., (2) do not line up with the English text ..., and (3) run over the margins ... and sometimes the English text.... This indicates that the Egyptian characters were added after the English text was written, perhaps to decorate the beginnings of paragraphs, although the reason for their inclusion was never explicitly stated" [Gee, 2000, p. 22].
As for a relationship between phrases in the Alphabet and Grammar to the published Book of Abraham, there is precious little, as Nibley notes [Nibley, 1971]:
For what has the A. & G. to do with the Book of Abraham? In the "explanations," six incomplete and disconnected phrases from the text of the Book of Abraham are quoted, and that is all (Abraham 1:2, 3, 23, 26; 2:3, 5). These are not sentences but simply very brief expressions taken out of context. They appear with proper meaning and context in the Book of Abraham, but only in a fragmentary and disconnected state in the A. & G. Which makes it perfectly clear that the Abraham text was already completed at the time these expressions were borrowed from it to help make the grammar. All the words quoted from the Book of Abraham in the A. & G. put together make up less than the bulk of the single verse Abraham 1:2. The thought of the Book of Abraham being worked out from, or even with the aid of the A. & G. which came later and contains not an iota of the material in that book, is simply ridiculous.
Joseph's work on an "Egyptian Alphabet" - whatever that was - may have been part of his own preparations to understand as much as he could on his own in order to qualify for the Lord's gift in doing a translation divinely. "Working things out in your own mind" was specified by the Lord as a prerequisite to receiving revelation in performing a translation, as we know from Doctrine and Covenant Section 9. It is unclear what Joseph actually did along these lines and what he and others thought they were doing. Many words in the Kirtland Papers seem wrong based on current understanding, but some words are correct (e.g., "Jah-oh-eh" translated as "O the earth" - a surprising match, or Sue-e-eh-ni for "Who is the man" - [Gee, 1992a , p. 113]). Some of the results have been seriously misinterpreted. For example, there is reference to "degrees" and "parts" in the Alphabet and Grammar, which critics assume are incorrect references to grammatic terms, but which John Tvedtnes [Tvedtnes, 1970] long ago showed were merely ways of describing the physical location of the symbols on the papyri ("degrees" describes columns, "parts" describes sections of the papyrus). The "first part of the second degree," for example, refers to the first column (first part) of a specific fragment (the second degree = the small Sensen papyrus). Thus much of the text of the Alphabet and Grammar is largely a means of giving the locations of symbols on the papyri. "Knowing that these are not grammatical terms, one comes to realize that the Alphabet and Grammar is not an attempt to 'translate' the symbols, but to explain them exegetically. In all this, however, there is no hint that Joseph Smith [or anyone else] performed that work under divine inspiration; again, he was working it out in his mind" [Tvedtnes, 1994].
Is there a relation between the Egyptian characters in the margins of the Book of Abraham translation and the characters in the so-called Alphabet and Grammar? Apparently not. I quote Nibley [Nibley, 1971]:
"The first thing we notice about the Egyptian symbols in the margins is that they are not the symbols found in the A. & G. and related works. If the Book of Abraham is supposed to be based on the latter, then these hieratic characters cannot be considered as its source. And there is no reason why they should be, aside from the argument of mere juxtaposition."
There is no clear evidence that Joseph used any of these papers in doing the translation, though he did spent time working on an understanding of the characters. But Joseph relied on inspiration from God - as is well attested - to produce the Book of Abraham, rather than relying on his personal (and undoubtedly imperfect) understanding of the Egyptian language. Some of his peers said he used the "Urim and Thummim" to perform the translation, while others simply speak of revelation. Again the method of translation is not specified.
In addition, the issue of length again becomes relevant. We know that Joseph had completed a translation of much more material than we now have in the Book of Abraham - and none of that additional material is found in the Kirtland papers. For example, Anson Call's Manuscript Journal (Summer, 1838; cited by Gee, 1992a, p. 111; also cited by Peterson, 1995, p. 140) records an incident in which Joseph and others spent an evening reading aloud from the translated Book of Abraham manuscript. They read on for two solid hours, apparently without finishing, while the small text now published requires only 30 minutes to read aloud. In addition, Joseph also noted that his translation provided extensive information on the "formation of the planetary system" and the system of astronomy [D.C. Jesse, 1984, pp. 60 and 105] - as the text of Abraham says is to be included later in the book (Abraham 1:31). The creation story and Facsimile 2 fall far short of this description. The Kirtland papers provide nothing on astronomical information.
Joseph had stated that he planned to publish more of the translation later. The crisis in Nauvoo and Joseph's martyrdom apparently disrupted these plans. (The scrolls were subsequently lost or destroyed, as far as we know, except for the fragments later found in the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art.) But it is clear that Joseph had produced more than just the brief published text, yet that is all of the translation that we find in the Kirtland Papers. I suggest (though it is open for debate) that they were not the working papers used in producing his work.
The standard argument of the critics is that Joseph produced the Book of Abraham from a few characters on the Sensen scroll, an argument based on the presence of these characters in the margins of some Book of Abraham manuscripts among the Kirtland Papers.
To call the Book of Abraham a translation of the few glyphs in the margins hardly makes sense for any conventional meaning of the word "translation," for we have many words of English - sometimes hundreds of words - for a single character. Some suggest that the characters were catalysts or "mnemonic devices" that were useful in the inspired restoration of the Book of Abraham. This view may be correct, but I don't think it fits with importance pieces of evidence already presented. I suggest that the Kirtland Paper represent an interesting exercise of some kind, but they need not provide any insight into the documents and methods Joseph used in preparing the English text for the Book of Abraham.
If Joseph had indeed claimed to be translating entire paragraphs of complex English text from single Egyptian characters ("shorthand" hieratic script, not elaborate glyphs), his associates who worked with him during the days of translation should have been suspicious. One of the scribes assisting in the work, Warren Parrish, did later turn against Joseph and the Church. Gee [1992a, p. 112] notes that Parrish wrote a letter to the editor of the Painesville Republican (publ. 15 Feb. 1838) in which he attacked Joseph, even to the point of inventing scandalous statements and ludicrous doctrines (e.g., that men aren't accountable for their actions) attributed to Joseph. In that letter, he said "I have set by his side and penned down the translation of the Egyptian Heiroglyphicks [sic] as he claimed to receive it by direct inspiration of Heaven." Gee's analysis on this situation is lucid (pp. 112-113):
"If Joseph Smith had been using the Alphabet and Grammar [from the Kirtland papers] to translate the book of Abraham it seems odd that Parrish did not mention it. Here Parrish has the chance to tell the world how ludicrous Joseph Smith is when claiming to translate pages of text from only a few characters (Parrish has studied Hebrew), but there is no mention of a process which would have been utterly silly had it been as the critics have charged....[I]f he had some solid ground he surely would have made use of it. Instead, his statement only suggests that what the critics of the book of Abraham have always charged is not the case."
There is an interesting rebuttal offered to this line of reasoning that I provide here as supplied to me via e-mail:
"At the time, the prevailing opinion concerning Egyptian Hieroglyphics was based on the analysis of Athanasius Kircher, a Jesuit mystic who concluded (quite incorrectly) that the Hieroglyphics represented 'idea-grams', and that a single glyph could express a lot of meaning. Champollion's work on Hieroglyphics, in which he showed that the Egyptian script, like nearly all scripts, was more syllabic that symbolic, had only just been published in Europe, and was certainly inaccessible to Smith.
Had Smith consulted any reference on Hieroglyphics (which seems likely) he would almost certainly have come across Kircher's work, and thus concluded that a large amount of text could be translated from a single glyph. Parrish would have known no better."
Much of the so-called Egyptian Alphabet and Grammar was done by Parrish. It's largely in his handwriting. If Joseph used that work to perform his translation, surely Parrish would have known it could not possibly be a real translation. Parrish's work may have been pure guesswork, and he would then be in a great position to expose Joseph - if Joseph had used the clearly deficient Egyptian Alphabet and Grammar to perform his translation.
Apart from Parrish's apparent (but unproven) role in producing the Egyptian Alphabet and Grammar, I think he surely would have suspected fraud to see Joseph producing many, many words from a puny little symbol, Kircher notwithstanding. Granted, symbols such as Chinese or Mayan glyphs and Egyptian hieroglyphics (as opposed to demotic or hieratic script, in my opinion) - can convey much meaning, but surely nothing in Kircher could possibly lend reason to the type of translation that Joseph is alleged to have performed in the Kirtland papers. A single Chinese character can represent an entire word or even a phrase when translated to English - but no one familiar with languages in even the most rudimentary way could ever assume that hundreds of words could be extracted from a tiny character. It seems unlikely that Parrish could have watched such a process occurring without being most skeptical.
And now for Nibley's response to the charge that Joseph "translated" the Book of Abraham from a few characters on the Sensen scroll, a la Kircher [Nibley, 1968-b, p.100]:
"By way of answer you have gone to all the trouble of placing the 'Sen-sen' symbols and the Book of Abraham side by side, and thereby presented us with the most effective possible refutation of your settled belief that Smith thought he was translating this particular document. Neither he nor anyone else could have thought it. You say that other people in his day tried to interpret Egyptian that way, but you are wrong; this translation of two or three short strokes and a dot with a 200 or 500-word history is not just exaggerated Kircherism--Horapollo, Kircher, Leibniz, et al., based their interpretations, however fantastic, on rational and allegorical principles; but no conceivable amount of rationalizing can match up the two columns here: this goes completely out of bounds. Long before anyone suspected the real meaning of the hieratic symbols in the [Egyptian Alphabet and Grammar], students were pointing out to each other that the column on the right could by no effort of the imagination be viewed as a translation of the column on the left. You can see it, and I can see it, and Mr. Heward can see it, and any ten-year-old child can see it. But Joseph Smith, who was clever enough to make up the story of the Book of Abraham in the first place, was too dense to see that the story--his story--was not really a translation of a page of senseless squiggles! Yet unless he believed that there is no case against him. We still suspect that there is a relationship between the two documents, but we don't know what it is."
Further, we learn from Kirtland Paper #6 that Smith's associates did not suffer from the foolish notion that hundreds of words could be derived from a single character. Paper #6, written by W.W. Phelps, one of Joseph's scribes, contains the only known case where an early Latter-day Saint claims that a specific English text is a translation of a specific Egyptian text. Phelps gives us four lines of English text, and says that they are a translation (presumably his) of over three lines of Egyptian text. Phelps did not associate hundreds of English words with a single stroke of Egyptian!
The idea that Joseph used the Kirtland papers to perform his translation is largely based on statements in Joseph's journal over a brief period (a couple of weeks) in 1835, just shortly after he received the papyri. He said he was working on an "alphabet" and on a grammar. But the earliest of the Kirtland Papers were produced between 1836 and 1837, at a time when Joseph apparently was not spending significant time working on the translation. In 1835, he may have just been briefly scoping out the project, which he did not get back to for some time (the first part of the translation was prepared in 1842). There is no evidence that his very brief work on a grammar in 1835 resulted in anything of significance, and there is no evidence that he used whatever he did in 1835 was a tool later in translating. We know he exerted a lot of effort to study the scrolls and sought to understand things with his own mind, but ultimately the translation was performed by revelation, not through his own linguistic abilities. He was personally fascinated in languages, and wrote that he yearned to learn languages. But whatever his personal efforts were in the area of Egyptian, I believe his translation was done by revelation from God. In my view, it is unsafe to assume that any of the Kirtland Papers provide information on how Joseph performed the translation.
Frankly, we know very little about the Kirtland Papers and what they represent. All we know of their provenance is that Wilford Wood found them. Joseph said nothing about them and we are under no obligation to accept them as anything but somebody's private musings. Larson and some other critics of Joseph Smith emphasize the Kirtland papers as the critical link and focus their efforts on them. Yet, Gee charges, in spite of Larson's claimed care and scholarship, he completely ignores the most significant scholarly work on the topic, Dr. Hugh Nibley's "The Meaning of the Kirtland Egyptian Papers" [Nibley, 1971]. I highly recommend that article.
Some thoughtful LDS people (and plenty of non-LDS, of course) may things differently. Clearly, one does not have to accept the reasoning of Nibley, Gee, Rhodes, or anyone else to "be a good Latter-day Saint." One can accept Christ as our Savior and even Joseph Smith as a prophet of Christ without taking any particular stand on how the Book of Abraham was "translated."
In addition to evidence for Egyptian connections to Abrahamic literature found in the Testament of Abraham and the Apocalypse of Abraham (discussed more fully in Part 2 of this document), both of which were found after Joseph Smith's time, other more recently found ancient Egyptian texts contain references to Abraham, including an Egyptian lion couch scene like Facsimile Number 1. Several related examples are provided by John Gee [Gee, 1992b]. Interestingly, most of these Egyptian documents that mention Abraham are from the same general era (ca. 1st to 3rd century A.D.) and location (Thebes) as the papyri that Joseph Smith had. These documents are not necessarily evidence that Abraham was known to the Egyptians of his time and may instead reflect much later Egyptian contact with Jews and Christians. But they do lend a little plausibility to Joseph's claim to have had Egyptian writings about Abraham.
In addition to the six instances of Abraham in Egyptian texts discussed in the Ensign article mentioned above, Gee cites 15 additional instances [Gee, 1995a, p. 29]. While one critic [Ashment, 1993] has tried to argue that the name Abraham does not appear on these texts, his position is a lonely one, "since no scholar who seriously works with these papyri doubts the existence in them of the name Abraham," according to Gee, who provides over a page of references to scholarly sources which agree that the name is Abraham. Indeed, there should be no doubt that the name is Abraham and not Ashment's "Abrasax" or any other name when a papyrus mentions "Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob" (PGM XIII.976 and XXXV.14, as cited by Gee, 1995a, p. 31 - see Gee's full article at the FARMS Web site), along with other Biblical names on other papyri. In fact, Origen even criticized some Egyptians of his day for making reference to the God of Abraham (Contra Celsum I, 22, as cited by Gee, 1995a, p. 32). The evidence is pretty solid: Abraham's name does occur in ancient Egyptian writings of the same era as the papyri Joseph Smith obtained. (The name Abraham does not occur on the existing Book of Breathings fragments - consistent with my view that they are not what Joseph called the Book of Abraham.)
Critics such as Jerald and Sandra Tanner have long argued that the Joseph Smith Papyri and related Egyptian documents (from the Anastasi priestly archive of ancient Thebes) could have no possible connection to a book of Abraham because they are nothing but pagan magical writings from the Greco-Roman period. Now that documents from that source have been found with the name Abraham on them, they argue that such writings can't have anything to do with Joseph Smith's Book of Abraham because they are nothing but pagan magical writings from the Greco-Roman period. But they miss the point: these recent discoveries show that the Egyptian writers of those documents did know something about Abraham. As John Gee notes [Gee, 1995a, p. 72]:
That a Greco-Roman period priest wrote the name Abraham directly under a lion-couch scene and noted that they should both be copied together may simply be coincidence - why it is there has never been satisfactorily explained - but the idea of connecting a lion couch scene found in a Greco-Roman period Egyptian papyrus from Thebes with Abraham can no longer be dismissed as absurd, as critics have done for years. Therein is and always has been the significance of the Anastasi priestly archive for the book of Abraham; not that the archive authenticates the book of Abraham - for it does not and no one has claimed that it did - but that it shows that the idea that a Greco-Roman period Egyptian priest might have had a copy of the book of Abraham is not completely out of the question....
Gee then notes that Jews had emigrated to Egypt many times in the past. Some Jews fled to Egypt in the sixth century B.C. before and after the time that Jerusalem was destroyed by Babylon. Others fled to Egypt during the Persian period (525-399 B.C.), during the reign of Ptolemy I (320-301 B.C.), and several more times prior to the destruction of Jerusalem, when another wave of refugees fled to Egypt (A.D. 70-73). A discussion of this topic can be found in The Jews in Hellenistic and Roman Egypt by Aryeh Kasher, Tübingen, Morh [Siebeck], 1985, and other sources cited by Gee [Gee, 1995a, p. 72]. Jewish refugees would have brought some writings with them, and at least parts of Jewish scriptures had been written in demotic script by the Persian period. Gee continues:
Nothing compels us to assume that the book of Abraham must necessarily have been written by Abraham in Egyptian and preserved in Egyptian hands the entire time; it may also have passed through the hands of Abraham's posterity and been taken to Egypt only much later, where it was translated....
What the Anastasi priestly archive shows is that Egyptian priests (in Thebes) freely borrowed from Jewish and Christian sources; thus they must have had some sort of access to them....A minimal historical argument from this is that the existence of a Book of Abraham in Egypt at the time of the Joseph Smith Papyri were produced is well within the scope of reasonable scholarship.
Interestingly, the Egyptian connections in the Testament of Abraham allow E.P. Sanders to "postulate Egyptian provenance for the original story," saying "it seems best to assume a date for the original of c. A.D. 100, plus or minus twenty-five years" [Charlesworth, 1983, 1:875]. What, then, is so ridiculous about an Egyptian papyrus of similar date presenting information about Abraham? The Book of Abraham has not been proven true by any of this, but several common allegations have been disproven. Egyptian writings about Abraham are a legitimate possibility.
So what do I think about the real source of the Book of Abraham? I personally feel that Joseph had a scroll (in red and black) which really contained writings about Abraham. That scroll is not the Book of Breathings, but was probably part of the collection that A. Combs sold, which ultimately may have perished in the 1871 Chicago Fire. There are still questions I can't answer, but I certainly see no reason to reject Joseph Smith because of the Book of Breathings. To those who insist that no legitimate translation of the Book of Breathings could possibly result in the Book of Abraham, I agree!
Yes, there are a variety of other attacks that critics have thrown at the Book of Abraham. Some of these are addressed on Part 2 of my Book of Abraham pages. Other issues are addressed at FAIRLDS and other sites listed below. As a reminder on how things have been changing regarding the historicity and plausibility of the Book of Abraham, though, consider this excerpt from Daniel Peterson and Matthew Roper in "Ein Heldenleben? On Thomas Stuart Ferguson as an Elias for Cultural Mormons," FARMS Review of Books, vol. 1, no. 16 (2004), pp. 175-220:
Does the Book of Abraham controversy provide solid grounds for Ferguson's loss of faith? Larson seems to think so. We do not. Leonard Lesko and John A. Wilson told Ferguson that the standing figure in Facsimile 1 should have the head not of a man but of the jackal-god Anubis (pp. 95-99). But, as Professor John Gee has pointed out, the question is really moot: Whether the figure had a human head or an Anubis mask, it would still be a priest.24
This leads to a broader critique of Larson's work: It is not balanced. He cites Stephen Thompson as a Latter-day Saint Egyptologist who rejects the Book of Abraham (pp. 98-99, 116, 121, 124, 125, 131, 194, 226), but he takes no account of John Gee, a Latter-day Saint Egyptologist who emphatically does not. He never confronts Gee's writing on the Pearl of Great Price.25 Are Thompson's criticisms of the Book of Abraham fatal to its historical claims? Let's look at a couple: Thompson claims that religious persecution did not exist in the ancient world until the time of Antiochus Epiphanes IV in the second century BC; the Egyptians, he says, were remarkably tolerant religiously. And human sacrifice, he says, was never practiced by ancient Egyptians. However, Thompson seems to have missed a Thirteenth Dynasty text stipulating that unauthorized intruders into the temple should be burned alive. And he overlooks a Twelfth Dynasty execration ritual that includes human sacrifice and was found at Mergissa, in Nubia, accompanied by a disarticulated skeleton with the skull upside down, smashed pottery, and the remnants of burnt red-wax figurines. But then, it is noteworthy (especially for an argument that relies heavily on charges of anachronism) that all of Thompson's evidence comes from the Egyptian New Kingdom, whereas Abraham almost certainly lived in the considerably earlier Middle Kingdom.26
And this, in turn, suggests an even broader problem: Larson appears to be ignoring a sizeable body of positive evidence for the historicity of both the Book of Mormon and the Book of Abraham. What is more, the evidence continues to accumulate. Critics of the Book of Abraham have long claimed that there was no Egyptian cultic influence in Syria at the time of Abraham, as the book seems to suggest. But over the past fifty years, historians have come to recognize that Egypt "dominated" Syria and Palestine during the Middle Kingdom. Moreover, Gee and Ricks have located published evidence of the worship of Egyptian gods in the Middle Bronze II period at Ebla, in Syria.27 This is the right time for Abraham, it is the right place, and it even includes (among others) the right god--the Fayyum crocodile god Sobek, who seems to appear in Facsimile 1. He has also identified a possible reference in Egyptian materials to the place-name Olishem, previously attested only in Abraham 1:10 and an ancient inscription near the site of Ebla.28
Like the Book of Mormon, the evidence for the plausibility of the Book of Abraham as an ancient text has arguably grown as we have learned more about the ancient world. As suggested above and as shown in Part 2 and Part 3 of this work, there are some impressive evidences that deserve at least a raised eyebrow if not acknowledgement as a bullseye.
Note: FARMS papers can be ordered directly from FARMS by calling 1-800-327-6715.
Among anti-LDS sources, there is a widespread myth that Hugh Nibley has disavowed his writings on the Book of Abraham, having being proven wrong in 1979 by Edward Ashment. Critics thus charge that my use of quotes from Nibley is misleading because he has rejected all of his past arguments (written in 1979 and before) about the Book of Abraham - or he has at least rejected four-fifths of it. That argument is an amazing bit of deception.
In a 1979 Sunstone Theological Seminar, Nibley did respond kindly to a presentation by Edward Ashment, in spite of strong disagreement, by noting that challenging and revising hypotheses is what scholarly progress is all about. He admitted that Ashment had pointed out some errors in Nibley's old writings, but Nibley said that there will always be errors and a need to revise and update understanding, and that there was no need for him to hand his head and feel ashamed. With typical Nibleyesque humor and humility, he said that there have been "changes" in four-fifths of what he was written over the years and said that he refused to be held accountable for anything written over three years ago - not because he had reversed any major positions, but because everything in Egyptology was in a state of flux ("reappraisal"). He has made many such statements about the fallibility of scholarship and the need to move on, progress, revise, etc. - it's typical Nibley realism, not a shamefaced retreat. This is what progress is all about. As for changes due to Ashment, he says "Since hearing Brother Ashment I have to make some changes in what I have said already." This doesn't sound like a total reversal but a scholarly updating and correction of errors. After 1979, did he reject the essence of his old writings? Unfortunately, he hasn't published much since 1979 - he was old and getting weak (but was still spunky) when I was in his ward in 1984-6, has had triple bypass surgery, and is near the end now. His relative silence on all topics since 1979 is hardly admission of giving up his former defense of the Book of Abraham. Indeed, in his 1980 paper on the Facsimiles (FARMS paper N-THE), he says, "It is not the purpose of these articles to review the various assaults made on the Book of Abraham, and why none of them has proven fatal or even very effective. That story has been told elsewhere." (p. 1) This may be an affirmation of his previous apologetic work. Most of Nibley's research and writing in the past 15 years or so appears to have been focused on his final work, "One Eternal Round," which he apparently feels will be the final word (for the moment, anyway) on the Book of Abraham. Let me assure you that this book is not going to cause rejoicing in the anti-Mormon community.
Now if Nibley has retreated on the Book of Abraham, wouldn't you expect his own family to know this? But his son Tom, writing recently in Review of Book s about the Book of Mormon (Vol. 5, 1993, p. 273 ff.), quotes his father's earlier writings as having demonstrated clearly that the tiny papyrus fragments are not the documents Joseph translated. Why do anti-Mormons know where Nibley stands when his own son does not?
Many people have heard Nibley lecture since 1979, and no one that I'm aware of who has heard Nibley talk (including me) has heard any hint that he reversed his major positions on the Book of Abraham because of anything Ashment of other critics have said.
To be fair, I will note that in spite of the great respect that Nibley has among many non-LDS scholars, one non-LDS scholar whom I respect expressed his feeling to me that Nibley's defense of the Book of Abraham was a blight on his record. Certainly a number of Nibley's views on particular details and evidences have been updated or outdated since the 1960s and 1970s - which is the way of all scholarship. But now in 1998 there is more evidence than ever that the critics of the Book of Abraham have been wrong, in my opinion. Seriously, how otherwise can we explain the direct hits scored by Joseph Smith on things like the sons of Horus and the four quarters of the earth, the crocodile as the God of Pharaoh, the sacrifice of Abraham, or the name Shinehah for the sun? (See Kerry Shirts' article, "Abraham 3:13 - Shinehah - the Sun: Joseph Smith Shines Through on This One Also .")?
I have read much of Nibley, have listened to him lecture, and even had the rare and wonderful opportunity to team teach a Gospel Doctrine Sunday School class with him when I was in graduate school at Brigham Young University (he taught one Sunday, I the next, to lighten his load). He is incredibly intelligent, self-effacing, and iconoclastic. He may mangle an occasional footnote and pursue some unjustified tangents, but his work demands attention and respect, in my opinion.
Part 2 of the Book of Abraham FAQ: The Facsimiles and Other Issues
Part 3: Ancient Records Offer New Support for the Book of Abraham - A brief survey of the vast body of ancient documents that confirm numerous details in the Book of Abraham that are not found in the Bible, and could not have been known to Joseph Smith. The primary source for this page is Traditions about the Early Life of Abraham, edited by John A. Tvedtnes, Brian M. Hauglid, and John Gee (Provo, Utah: Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 2001), which I strongly recommend. This book provides easy access to many dozens of ancient documents to let the reader see if the details in the Book of Abraham were primarily random fantasies of Joseph Smith, or if it is related to information about Abraham known in ancient times. The evidence for authenticity is truly noteworthy.
"Translation and Historicity of the Book of Abraham" -- statement from the Church published in 2014 in the LDS Topics area of LDS.org. Reviews some of the topics for debate around Book of Abraham origins, while affirming its truthfulness and recognizing the compelling evidence for ancient origins. The brief statement with 46 footnotes makes several important points. It reminds us that we do not know how the translation was done though there are several possibilities to consider. It also gives reasonable responses to several common objections such as the lack of Abraham-related text in the papyrus fragment that contains Facsimile 1. It also discusses evidences for the authenticity of the Book of Abraham, including a few of the topics raised above.
Evidence for the antiquity of Joseph's Book of Abraham--a compilation of key information, courtesy of FAIRMormon.org.
Kevin Barney's 2013 article, "The Book of Abraham" gives an excellent overview.
The Lost Book of Abraham: Investigating a Remarkable Anti-Mormon Claim - a paper by Ben McGuire on the FAIRLDS.org Website that reviews an anti-LDS film entitled The Lost Book of Abraham: Investigating a Remarkable Mormon Claim. Excellent!
Kerry A. Shirts' "Mormonism Researched" Pages (archived). Research on the LDS scriptures, including the Book of Abraham, and related topics. See, for example, his article, "Abraham 3:13 - Shinehah - the Sun: Joseph Smith Shines Through on This One Also." Can the critics explain this one away?
Video: Suspecting Joseph Smith for Allegedly Sloppy Restoration of Facsimile 2? - Kerry Shirts reveals the desperate nature of an argument from Charles Larson.
Book of Abraham: "By his own hand" - a FAIRWiki article discussing the claim that the Book of Abraham is bogus because it makes the impossible claim that it was written by Abraham's own hand instead of by a much later Egyptian scribe.
Judging and Prejudging the Book of Abraham by Hugh W. Nibley
The Book of Abraham Project - a project at BYU dealing with the documents and criticisms of the Book of Abraham. Be sure to see the page Criticisms of Joseph Smith and the Book of Abraham.
John Gee's review of Charles M. Larson's anti-Mormon book, By His Own Hand upon Papyrus: A New Look at the Joseph Smith Papyri, (Grand Rapids: Institute for Religious Research, 1992).
Michael Rhodes' review of By His Own Hand upon Papyrus
The Joseph Smith Hypocephalus: Twenty Years Later by Michael D. Rhodes. This article provides an excellent discussion of Facsimile #2 and the amazingly reasonable commentary of Joseph Smith, which could not have been fabricated based on scholarly knowledge in the 1830s. Critics will have a hard time explaining how Joseph Smith was able to offer such plausible commentary.1968 thesis by Rabbi Nissim Wernick entitled "A Critical Analysis of the Book of Abraham in the Light of Extra-Canonical Jewish Writings.
The Case for the Phantom Papyri by Kevin W. Graham. This is an excellent article summarizing evidence that the papyrus fragments found in 1967 were only part of the collection Joseph Smith had, and were NOT the documents used to translate the Book of Abraham.
The Jewish Origin of the Book of Abraham by Jonathan Moyer, a scholarly paper exploring the ancient Jewish roots of the Book of Abraham.
"The Book of Abraham: Ask the Right Questions and Keep On Looking" by Larry E. Morris, FARMS Review, vol. 16, 2004. A review of "The Breathing Permit of Hor' Thirty-four Years Later," Dialogue 33/4 (2000): 97-119." by Robert K. Ritner.
The Neal A. Maxwell Institute (formerly Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies). The Maxwell Institute offers many resources to better understand LDS scriptures and to refute anti-Mormon claims.
Ryan Larsen discusses the Book of Joseph vs. the Book of Abraham - did the scrolls include a second book of scripture from Joseph? Ryan Larsen explains why that may be an errant assumption.
"Why Is It There? Book of Abraham Facsimile 1 and the Opening Vignette of the Joseph Smith Book of Breathings" by Val Sederholm. This explores some interesting connections between the translation of Hor's Book of Breathings in the JS Papyri with some of the content of the Book of Abraham.
FAIRMormon: Response to criticisms of Facsimile 3 by Ritner and others -- a useful page showing some of the oversights behind common criticism of Joseph's comments on Facsimile 3.
A Critical Analysis of the Book of Abraham in the Light of Extra-Canonical Jewish Writings - Rabbi Nissim Wernick's 1968 thesis completed at BYU. Provides lots of useful information from ancient sources that are aligned with the Book of Abraham.
I am very grateful to the comments and suggestions of many people (some of whom even kindly mailed me documents) on this controversial topic. Some of my past views have been discarded or toned down, while other issues seem more clearly settled, after reviewing more original data and commentary. The current draft is still just a draft, intended to be a tool for those interested in this topic. I regret that I don't have the time to keep up with all the e-mail I receive, but I do appreciate your comments.