This entry is part 2 of 13 in Leav­ing the Church — Eric Nel­son.

1. Back­ground

Per­haps the most prob­lem­at­ic issue under­min­ing the Church is the Book of Abra­ham. In July of 1835, a trav­el­ing show­man named Michael Chan­dler brought an exhib­it con­sist­ing of four Egypt­ian mum­mies and papyri to Kirt­land, Ohio, then the home of the Lat­ter-day Saints. The papyri con­tained Egypt­ian hiero­glyph­ics, which intrigued Joseph Smith. Joseph was giv­en per­mis­sion to look at the papyri scrolls in the exhib­it, upon which he pro­nounced a mar­velous discovery:

[W]ith W. W. Phelps and Oliv­er Cow­dery as scribes, I com­mence the trans­la­tion of some of the char­ac­ters or hiero­glyph­ics, and much to our joy found that one of the rolls con­tained the writ­ings of Abra­ham, anoth­er the writ­ings of Joseph of Egypt, etc. — a more full account of which will appear in its place, as I pro­ceed to exam­ine or unfold them. Tru­ly we can say, the Lord is begin­ning to reveal the abun­dance of peace and truth.” (His­to­ry of the Church, Vol. 2, p. 236).

Astound­ed by their good for­tune in find­ing the writ­ings of Abra­ham and Joseph of Egypt, sev­er­al mem­bers of the Church pur­chased the papyri and mum­mies for $2,400. Short­ly there­after, Joseph appar­ent­ly received con­fir­ma­tion that the scrolls con­tained the writ­ings of Abraham.

The prophet took [the scrolls] and repaired to his room and inquired of the Lord con­cern­ing them. The Lord told him they were sacred records, con­tain­ing the inspired writ­ings of Abra­ham when he was in Egypt, and also those of Joseph, while he was in Egypt… (Orson Pratt, Jour­nal of Dis­cours­es, vol. 26.)

Approx­i­mate­ly sev­en years lat­er, Joseph fin­ished trans­lat­ing the scroll he called the Book of Abra­ham, but died before trans­lat­ing the Book of Joseph scroll.

The LDS Church believes the Book of Abra­ham was writ­ten by Abra­ham him­self, as shown in the pref­ace to the Book of Abraham:

“A Trans­la­tion of some ancient Records, that have fall­en into our hands from the cat­a­combs of Egypt. — The writ­ings of Abra­ham while he was in Egypt, called the Book of Abra­ham, writ­ten by his own hand, upon papyrus.”

In addi­tion, Wil­ford Woodruff record­ed in his diary on Feb­ru­ary 19, 1842 that the Book of Abra­ham was lit­er­al­ly writ­ten by Abra­ham. This would make the Book of Abra­ham the only exist­ing orig­i­nal copy of a scrip­tur­al book. It would also date the record of Abra­ham (about 2,000 B.C.) to some 500 years pri­or to the Book of Gen­e­sis authored by Moses, between 1440–1400 B.C.

Joseph the Seer has pre­sent­ed us some of the Book of Abra­ham which was writ­ten by his own hand but hid from the knowl­edge of man for the last four thou­sand years but has now come to light through the mer­cy of God.” (Diary of Wil­ford Woodruff, entry of Feb­ru­ary 19, 1842, LDS archives; also in Jay M. Todd, The Saga of the Book of Abra­ham (Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret Book Co., 1969), p. 221.)

After com­plet­ing the trans­la­tion, Joseph used the Book of Abra­ham mate­r­i­al in ser­mons, lec­tures and oth­er writ­ings. In 1880, the Book of Abra­ham, by unan­i­mous vote of LDS author­i­ties, was “can­on­ized” as offi­cial scrip­ture of the LDS Church as part of the Pearl of Great Price.

2. Sus­pi­cions and Con­cerns with Translation

When Joseph trans­lat­ed the papyri in the first half of the 19th cen­tu­ry, no one in North Amer­i­ca could deci­pher Egypt­ian. So Joseph Smith could say the hiero­glyph­ics meant any­thing he want­ed, and he could not be proven wrong. How­ev­er, once schol­ars learned to deci­pher the Egypt­ian lan­guage, Joseph’s trans­la­tion became sub­ject to con­sid­er­able analy­sis and exam­i­na­tion. In vir­tu­al­ly all instances, schol­ars con­clud­ed that the Book of Abra­ham was a fraud.

1856 Chal­lenge: In 1856, a copy of the Pearl of Great Price found its way to the Lou­vre in Paris and was brought to M. Theo­d­ule Dev­e­ria. As one of the pio­neers in Egyp­tol­ogy, Dev­e­ria was asked to offer an analy­sis of the book. Dev­e­ria imme­di­ate­ly rec­og­nized all three fac­sim­i­les pub­lished with the Book of Abra­ham as copies of com­mon Egypt­ian funer­ary doc­u­ments, which he had exam­ined on hun­dreds occa­sions. Dev­e­ria dis­missed Joseph’s trans­la­tion as fraud­u­lent non­sense. His com­ments first appeared in a two-vol­ume work by Jules Remy, “Voy­age au Pays des Mormons.”

1912 Chal­lenge: Joseph’s trans­la­tion of the ancient papyri was fur­ther scru­ti­nized by Rt. Rev­erend Franklin S. Spald­ing, Epis­co­pal Bish­op of Utah, in 1912. Spald­ing sent copies of the three fac­sim­i­les from the Book of Abra­ham to some of the world’s lead­ing schol­ars of Egyp­tol­ogy, ask­ing each for an inde­pen­dent assess­ment of Joseph Smith’s inter­pre­ta­tions. The eight Egyp­tol­o­gists and Semi­tists who respond­ed were unan­i­mous in their scathing ver­dict: Joseph Smith’s papyri were com­mon Egypt­ian funer­ary texts and whol­ly unre­lat­ed to the Book of Abraham.

  • Joseph Smith’s inter­pre­ta­tion of these cuts is a far­ra­go of non­sense from begin­ning to end,” adding that “five min­utes study in an Egypt­ian gallery of any muse­um should be enough to con­vince any edu­cat­ed man of the clum­si­ness of the impos­ture; .…” (Dr. Arthur Mace, Assis­tant Cura­tor, Met­ro­pol­i­tan Muse­um of Art, New York, Dept. of Egypt­ian Art.)
  • [D]ifficult to deal seri­ous­ly with Smith’s impu­dent fraud,” wrote anoth­er from Oxford, Eng­land. “Smith has turned the God­dess into a king and Osiris into Abra­ham.” (Dr. A. H. Sayce, Oxford, Eng­land.)
  • [The evi­dence] very clear­ly demon­strates that [Joseph Smith] was total­ly unac­quaint­ed with the sig­nif­i­cance of these doc­u­ments and absolute­ly igno­rant of the sim­plest facts of Egypt­ian Writ­ing and civ­i­liza­tion.” (James H. Breast­ed, Ph.D., Haskell Ori­en­tal Muse­um, Uni­ver­si­ty of Chica­go.)
  • [T]he attempts to guess a mean­ing are too absurd to be noticed. It may be safe­ly said that there is not one sin­gle word that is true in these expla­na­tions.” (Dr. W.M. Flinders Petrie, Lon­don Uni­ver­si­ty)

3. Book of Abra­ham Papyri Redis­cov­ered: In 1966, a Uni­ver­si­ty of Utah researcher at the Met­ro­pol­i­tan Muse­um of Art in New York made a star­tling find in the muse­um archives: he had redis­cov­ered some of the orig­i­nal papyrus frag­ments that the LDS Church pur­chased in 1835. In 1967, the Muse­um pre­sent­ed the papyri as a gift to the Church.

Ana­lyz­ing the redis­cov­ered papyri (in con­junc­tion with Joseph Smith’s per­son­al papers) pro­vides us with a great deal of insight into how Joseph attempt­ed to trans­late the papyri. Specif­i­cal­ly, the Church has retained a copy of the Gram­mar and Alpha­bet of the Egypt­ian Lan­guage (GAEL), which was writ­ten in one of Joseph Smith’s note­books. The GAEL con­tains hand­writ­ten copies of the orig­i­nal trans­la­tion work that showed the indi­vid­ual Egypt­ian fig­ures from the papyrus down the left mar­gin of a page, with the Eng­lish trans­la­tion next to it. The hand­writ­ing on these copies belonged to Joseph’s scribes, who helped him with the trans­la­tion. These Egypt­ian fig­ures appear in a por­tion of one of the recov­ered papyrus , all in exact­ly the same order that they appear on the hand­writ­ten “trans­la­tion” pages. Kevin Mathie’s analy­sis of this issue in his book, Exam­in­ing the Book of Abra­ham, demon­strates that Joseph Smith used the recov­ered papyrus in trans­lat­ing the Book of Abra­ham. The fol­low­ing pic­tures demon­strate how Joseph Smith tried to con­struct the Book of Abra­ham based on each hiero­glyph­ic char­ac­ter on the papyrus.

Book of Abraham Source

4. “Book of Abra­ham Papyri” Exposed as Ordi­nary Funer­ary Doc­u­ments: In time, researchers obtained ade­quate copies of the redis­cov­ered papyri and began com­par­ing them with the Book of Abra­ham text. But schol­ar after schol­ar, both inside and out­side the LDS Church, con­clud­ed that there was no con­nec­tion between the Book of Abra­ham text and the papyri scrolls. Rather, Egyp­tol­o­gists iden­ti­fied the papyri as ordi­nary Egypt­ian funer­ary doc­u­ments. The sec­tion of the papyri used by Joseph was from a doc­u­ment called the Book of Breath­ings and con­tained the spe­cif­ic name of the deceased indi­vid­ual for whom it had been pre­pared. Oth­er papyrus frag­ments from the col­lec­tion were from the Egypt­ian Book of the Dead, an ear­li­er col­lec­tion of writ­ings with a sim­i­lar pur­pose. In fact, the papyrus used by Joseph Smith to “trans­late” the Book of Abra­ham has been dat­ed by schol­ars to the first cen­tu­ry AD, almost 2000 years after the time of Abraham.

Before dis­cussing the spe­cif­ic trans­la­tion issues, it is impor­tant to note that the LDS Church admits that the Book of Abra­ham text bears no rela­tion­ship to the papyri scrolls. In July 2014, the Church released an essay stat­ing: “Mor­mon and non-Mor­mon Egyp­tol­o­gists agree that the char­ac­ters on the frag­ments do not match the trans­la­tion giv­en in the Book of Abraham.”

More­over, LDS and non-LDS schol­ars alike con­clude that the papyri in the Church’s pos­ses­sion bear no rela­tion­ship to the Book of Abra­ham. For exam­ple, Dr. Stephen E. Thomp­son is an LDS schol­ar who holds a Ph.D. in Egyp­tol­ogy from Brown Uni­ver­si­ty. In a paper giv­en at the 1993 Sun­stone Sym­posia, Dr. Thomp­son pre­sent­ed his rea­sons for con­clud­ing that Joseph Smith did not pro­duce the Book of Abra­ham by trans­lat­ing it from an Egypt­ian papyrus scroll he obtained in 1835. Here is a link to a PDF copy of his paper, Egyp­tol­ogy and the Book of Abra­ham.

Like­wise, Uni­ver­si­ty of Chica­go Egyp­tol­ogy Pro­fes­sor Robert Rit­ner wrote a paper in 2003 about the Book of Abra­ham. (Dr. Robert Rit­ner, “ ‘The Breath­ing Per­mit of Hor’ Among the Joseph Smith Papyri,” Jour­nal of Near East­ern Stud­ies, July 2003 issue, Vol­ume 62, Num­ber 3, pp. 161–180.) Rit­ner is a high­ly-respect­ed Egyp­tol­o­gist and his inter­pre­ta­tion of the papyri is con­sis­tent with that of every oth­er non-LDS Egyp­tol­o­gist: the BOA bears no rela­tion­ship to the papyri. Rit­ner stat­ed: “Except for those will­ful­ly blind, the case is closed.” Rit­ner also iden­ti­fies many of the deceit­ful tac­tics that LDS apol­o­gists use to defend the BOA. You can read the arti­cle here.

5. Fac­sim­i­le 1: The fol­low­ing is analy­sis of Fac­sim­i­le 1. The pic­ture on the left shows the redis­cov­ered papyri (includ­ing images Joseph Smith and his scribes pen­ciled in). The pic­ture on the right is the final ver­sion that appears in the can­on­ized Book of Abraham.

The fol­low­ing image is what Fac­sim­i­le 1 should look like had Joseph Smith cor­rect­ly fin­ished the image.

The fol­low­ing is a side-by-side com­par­i­son of what Joseph Smith trans­lat­ed in Fac­sim­i­le #1 ver­sus what it actu­al­ly says accord­ing to mod­ern Egyptologists:

6. Fac­sim­i­le #2: The fol­low­ing is a side-by-side com­par­i­son of what Joseph Smith trans­lat­ed in Fac­sim­i­le #2 ver­sus what it actu­al­ly says accord­ing to Egyptologists:

Strange­ly, Joseph Smith claimed that fig­ure 7 in Fac­sim­i­le 2 rep­re­sent­ed “God sit­ting on his throne.” Egyp­tol­o­gists, how­ev­er, have deter­mined that it is actu­al­ly Min, the pagan Egypt­ian god of fer­til­i­ty or sex.

7. Fac­sim­i­le #3: The fol­low­ing is a side-by-side com­par­i­son of what Joseph Smith trans­lat­ed in Fac­sim­i­le #3 ver­sus what it actu­al­ly says accord­ing to Egyptologists:

Facsimile 3

8. Dis­cred­it­ed Sci­ence: The Book of Abra­ham (par­tic­u­lar­ly in chap­ter 3) teach­es a New­ton­ian view of the uni­verse. How­ev­er, the Book’s New­ton­ian astron­o­my con­cepts, mechan­ics, and mod­els of the uni­verse have been dis­cred­it­ed by 20th Cen­tu­ry Ein­stein­ian physics. In fact, Kei­th Nor­man, an LDS schol­ar, has writ­ten that, “It is no longer pos­si­ble [for the LDS Church] to pre­tend there is no con­flict” between the dis­cred­it­ed New­ton­ian “sci­ence” con­tained in the Book of Abra­ham and the sci­en­tif­ic dis­cov­er­ies of today. (Kei­th E. Nor­man, Ph.D., Mor­mon Cos­mol­o­gy: Can it Sur­vive the Big Bang?, Sun­stone Mag­a­zine, 1986)

Many of the astro­nom­i­cal and cos­mo­log­i­cal ideas found in both Joseph Smith’s envi­ron­ment and in the Book of Abra­ham are now out of vogue, and some of these New­ton­ian con­cepts are sci­en­tif­ic relics. The evi­dence sug­gests that the Book of Abra­ham reflects con­cepts of Joseph Smith’s time and place rather than those of an ancient world. (Grant Palmer, An Insider’s View of Mor­mon Ori­gins, p.25.) As one exam­ple, Fac­sim­i­le 2, Fig­ure #5 states the sun gets its light from Kolob. How­ev­er, the sun’s source of ener­gy is inter­nal, and not exter­nal. The sun shines because of ther­monu­clear fusion; not because it gets its light from any oth­er star as claimed by the Book of Abraham

9. Book’s Use of KJV Text: The pri­ma­ry source for chap­ters 2, 4, and 5 of the Book of Abra­ham is Gen­e­sis chap­ters 1, 2, 11, and 12. Six­ty-six out of 77 vers­es are quo­ta­tions or close para­phras­es of KJV word­ing. (Palmer, An Insider’s View of Mor­mon Ori­gins, p.19). The Book of Abra­ham is sup­posed to be an ancient text writ­ten thou­sands of years ago “by [Abraham’s] own hand upon papyrus.” Why is 17th Cen­tu­ry King James Ver­sion text con­tained in the Book? What does this say about the book being ancient­ly writ­ten by Abraham?

10. Anachro­nisms: The Book of Abra­ham con­tains numer­ous anachro­nisms (which are words, objects, or events that are placed in a time or set­ting where they do not belong or could not have exist­ed). These anachro­nisms con­sti­tute clear evi­dence against the book’s authen­tic­i­ty. For example:

  • Fac­sim­i­le 1: This vignette is specif­i­cal­ly referred to in the text of the Book of Abra­ham (Abr. 1:12, 14), but the vignette itself dates to approx­i­mate­ly 150–100 B.C.E.
  • Chaldea: This name occurs in Abra­ham 1:1, 8, 13, 20, 23, 29, 30, and 2:4. The Chaldeans appeared in the ninth cen­tu­ry B.C.E. in the land south of present-day Iraq (Baby­lo­nia), and, appar­ent­ly, migrat­ed from Syr­ia. If the Chaldeans appeared in the 9th cen­tu­ry B.C.E., and Abra­ham lived pri­or to 1500 B.C.E., then the ref­er­ence to the “Chaldeans” in the Book of Abra­ham is an anachro­nism of 700 years or more.
  • Pharaoh: The Book of Abra­ham uses the word “Pharaoh” as the name of rulers of Egypt (Abr 1:6, 20, 26) and says that the mean­ing of the word (Abr 1:20) is “king by roy­al blood.” The first ruler named “Pharaoh” is iden­ti­fied as a great-grand­son of Noah (Abr 1:25). The lin­guis­tic prob­lem is that the word “pharaoh” orig­i­nal­ly meant “great house.” It did not become a title for the king until the begin­ning of the New King­dom (18th Dynasty), which began about 1567 B.C. long after Abraham’s death.
  • Egyp­tus (Abr 1:23–25): The Book of Abra­ham states that “Egyp­tus” was the wife of Ham (the son of Noah) and the moth­er of Pharaoh who estab­lished the first Egypt­ian gov­ern­ment. (Abr 1:23). The name “Egyp­tus” is obvi­ous­ly intend­ed to be the source of the name of the coun­try. But here is the lin­guis­tic prob­lem: the name “Egypt” is not Egypt­ian, but Greek (‘Aigyp­tos’), and thus was not used for the name of the coun­try until the Greeks had con­tact with it, long after Abra­ham’s time. Sim­ply stat­ed, the word was not even in exis­tence when Abra­ham was alive.

11. Church Essay Debunked: On July 8, 2014, the Church pub­lished an essay con­cern­ing the Book of Abra­ham in the top­i­cal guide of LDS​.org: Trans­la­tion and His­toric­i­ty of the Book of Abra­ham. The essay the­o­rizes how Joseph Smith could have “trans­lat­ed” the Book of Abra­ham when Egyp­tol­o­gists have deter­mined that the Book of Abra­ham bears no rela­tion­ship to the papyri from which it was trans­lat­ed. Although numer­ous schol­ars have respond­ed to the Church’s essay, Dr. Robert Rit­ner, Pro­fes­sor of Egyp­tol­ogy in the Ori­en­tal Insti­tute, housed at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Chica­go, pub­lished one of the more per­sua­sive rebut­tals. In so doing, Rit­ner decon­structs many of the Church’s claims. Ritner’s response can be found here.

Odd­ly, the essay does not pro­vide any defin­i­tive con­clu­sions as to how the Book of Abra­ham came about but instead offers three dif­fer­ent the­o­ries. Each the­o­ry is dis­cussed below.

The­o­ry 1

Joseph trans­lat­ed Egypt­ian papyri into Eng­lish. The essay states:

Some evi­dence sug­gests that Joseph stud­ied the char­ac­ters on the Egypt­ian papyri and attempt­ed to learn the Egypt­ian lan­guage. His his­to­ry reports that, in July 1835, he was “con­tin­u­al­ly engaged in trans­lat­ing an alpha­bet to the Book of Abra­ham, and arrang­ing a gram­mar of the Egypt­ian lan­guage as prac­ticed by the ancients.”

… it appears that Joseph Smith began trans­lat­ing por­tions of the book of Abra­ham almost imme­di­ate­ly after the pur­chase of the papyri. Phelps appar­ent­ly viewed Joseph Smith as unique­ly capa­ble of under­stand­ing the Egypt­ian char­ac­ters: “As no one could trans­late these writ­ings,” he told his wife, “they were pre­sent­ed to Pres­i­dent Smith. He soon knew what they were.

The evi­dence over­whelm­ing­ly sup­ports the idea that Joseph believed that he lit­er­al­ly trans­lat­ed (i.e. ren­der­ing from one lan­guage into anoth­er) the papyri into the Book of Abra­ham. First, Joseph cre­at­ed the “Gram­mar and Alpha­bet of the Egypt­ian Lan­guage” after obtain­ing the papyri, indi­cat­ing that he was attempt­ing a lit­er­al char­ac­ter-by-char­ac­ter translation.

Sec­ond, Joseph’s own state­ments clear­ly indi­cate that he believed he was trans­lat­ing the papyri in the lit­er­al, tra­di­tion­al man­ner. For example:

  • I, with W[illiam] W. Phelps and O[liver] Cow­dery, as scribes, com­menced the trans­la­tion of some of the char­ac­ters or hiero­glyph­ics, and much to our joy found that one of the rolls con­tained the writ­ings of Abra­ham; anoth­er the writ­ings of Joseph of Egypt, &c, a more full account will appear in their place, as I pro­ceed to exam­ine or unfold them.

As Mr Chan­dler had been told that I could trans­late them, he brought me some of the char­ac­ters, and I gave him the inter­pre­ta­tion .…” (From the Joseph Smith Papers, July 6, 1835.)

  • [July, 1835] – The remain­der of this month I was con­tin­u­al­ly engaged in trans­lat­ing an alpha­bet to the Book of Abra­ham, and arrang­ing a gram­mar of the Egypt­ian lan­guage s prac­ticed by the ancients.” (His­to­ry of the Church, Vol. 2, pg. 238.)
  • Octo­ber 1 [, 1835] – This after­noon labored on the Egypt­ian alpha­bet, in com­pa­ny with Broth­ers O. Cow­dery and W.W. Phelps, and dur­ing the research, the prin­ci­ples of astron­o­my as under­stood by Father Abra­ham .…” (His­to­ry of the Church, Vol. 2, pg. 236.)
  • Novem­ber 17, 1835 – Exhib­it­ed the alpha­bet of the ancient records, to Mr. Holmes, and some oth­ers.” (His­to­ry of the Church, Vol. 2, pg. 316.)
  • The record of Abra­ham and Joseph, found with the mum­mies, is beau­ti­ful­ly writ­ten upon papyrus, with black, and small part red, ink or plant, in per­fect preser­va­tion.” His­to­ry of the Church, Vol. 2, pg. 348.)

The Church, how­ev­er, has a seri­ous prob­lem if Joseph lit­er­al­ly trans­lat­ed the papyri as he claimed. Every non-LDS Egyp­tol­o­gist, and a sig­nif­i­cant por­tion of LDS Egyp­tol­o­gists, who have exam­ined the papyri in con­junc­tion with the Book of Abra­ham have con­clud­ed that the Book of Abra­ham bears no rela­tion­ship to the papyri. In fact, the Church’s essay admits as much:

Nei­ther the rules nor the trans­la­tions in the gram­mar book cor­re­spond to those rec­og­nized by Egyp­tol­o­gists today. None of the char­ac­ters on the papyrus frag­ments men­tioned Abra­ham’s name or any of the events record­ed in the book of Abra­ham. Mor­mon and non-Mor­mon Egyp­tol­o­gists agree that the char­ac­ters on the frag­ments do not match the trans­la­tion giv­en in the Book of Abraham.

In oth­er words, the papyri that Joseph used to trans­late the Book of Abra­ham have noth­ing to do with the Book of Abra­ham. How, then, did the book come about? If Joseph lit­er­al­ly trans­lat­ed the papyri (as he claimed and as the evi­dence sug­gests), then the most log­i­cal con­clu­sion is this: Book of Abra­ham is a fraud.

The­o­ry 2

The papyri trans­lat­ed into the Book of Abra­ham are miss­ing. The essay states:

Eye­wit­ness­es spoke of ‘a long roll’ or mul­ti­ple ‘rolls’ of papyrus. Since only frag­ments sur­vive, it is like­ly that much of the papyri acces­si­ble to Joseph when he trans­lat­ed the book of Abra­ham is not among these frag­ments. The loss of a sig­nif­i­cant por­tion of the papyri means the rela­tion­ship of the papyri to the pub­lished text can­not be set­tled con­clu­sive­ly by ref­er­ence to the papyri.

This the­o­ry first sur­faced after Egyp­tol­o­gists dis­cov­ered the con­flict between the papyri in the Church’s pos­ses­sion and the Book of Abra­ham. How­ev­er, this the­o­ry is, at best, sus­pect. The the­o­ry orig­i­nat­ed from Hugh B. Nib­ley in a series of arti­cles he pub­lished in 1968. Accord­ing to Nib­ley, Joseph F. Smith vis­it­ed the Joseph’s Man­sion House in Nau­voo in 1843 or 1844. Dur­ing the vis­it, Joseph F. Smith saw the papyri and indi­cat­ed that one of the rolls of papyri, when unrolled on the floor, extend­ed through two rooms of the Man­sion House. How­ev­er, there are numer­ous prob­lems with this account. First, Joseph F. Smith was only five years old when he saw the papyri. Sec­ond, Joseph F. Smith did not describe the length of the papyri until 1906, near­ly 65 years after it occurred. Third, Nibley’s depic­tion of the events relies on mul­ti­ple lev­els of hearsay, as we do not have Joseph F. Smith’s first-per­son account. Rather, Joseph F. Smith relat­ed his mem­o­ry of the papyri (which occurred 65 years ear­li­er when he was five or six years old) to Pre­ston Nib­ley (Hugh B. Nibley’s old­er half-broth­er), who then relayed the sto­ry to Hugh B. Hib­ley, who then pub­lished the sto­ry in a series of arti­cles in 1968. Clear­ly, The­o­ry 2 is not based on reli­able information.

Regard­less, when the essay states that it only has a “frac­tion” of the papyri, the Church implies that the lost por­tion of the papyri is the actu­al source of the Book of Abra­ham. But schol­ars have math­e­mat­i­cal­ly mea­sured the scroll and dis­cred­it­ed this claim. For exam­ple, Egyp­tol­o­gist Robert Rit­ner (who pub­lished his find­ings in his book, “The Joseph Smith Egypt­ian Papyri: A Com­plete Edi­tion,” 2013), as well Andrew W. Cook and Christo­pher C. Smith (who pub­lished their find­ings in their arti­cle, “The Orig­i­nal Length of the Scroll of Hor,” Dia­logue: A Jour­nal of Mor­mon Thought, Win­ter 2010) have stud­ied the issue exten­sive­ly and deter­mined that the Church has the vast major­i­ty of the orig­i­nal papyri.

More­over, the Gram­mar and Alpha­bet that Joseph pro­duced, along with the tran­scribed hiero­glyphs and cor­re­lat­ing inter­pre­ta­tions of the hiero­glyphs (which appear in the Book of Abra­ham), make it clear that Joseph had vir­tu­al­ly no under­stand­ing of Egypt­ian hieroglyphs.

Notably, the Church’s essay makes a disin­gen­u­ous claim in sup­port of The­o­ry 2: “The loss of a sig­nif­i­cant por­tion of the papyri means the rela­tion­ship of the papyri to the pub­lished text can­not be set­tled con­clu­sive­ly by ref­er­ence to the papyri.” The Church essen­tial­ly claims that we can­not test Joseph’s trans­la­tion because we do not have the actu­al frag­ments Joseph used. How­ev­er, the Church admits that we do have three vignettes or fac­sim­i­les that Joseph claimed to have trans­lat­ed. These fac­sim­i­les appear in the can­on­ized ver­sion of the Book of Abra­ham along with numer­ous foot­notes con­tain­ing Joseph’s trans­la­tion of var­i­ous depic­tions in the fac­sim­i­les. Odd­ly, the Church claims that we can­not test Joseph’s trans­la­tion because we do not have the actu­al frag­ments Joseph used in trans­la­tion while ignor­ing the fact that the Church pos­sess­es (and even pub­lished with the Book of Abra­ham) three fac­sim­i­les along with Joseph’s cor­re­spond­ing translation.

More impor­tant­ly, the essay fails to explain why Joseph’s trans­la­tions of the can­on­ized fac­sim­i­les are con­clu­sive­ly refut­ed by Egyptologists.

The­o­ry 3

Joseph did not trans­late the Book of Abra­ham in the tra­di­tion­al sense but received it via rev­e­la­tion. The essay states as follows:

Alter­na­tive­ly, Joseph’s study of the papyri may have led to a rev­e­la­tion about key events and teach­ings in the life of Abra­ham, much as he had ear­li­er received a rev­e­la­tion about the life of Moses while study­ing the Bible. This view assumes a broad­er def­i­n­i­tion of the words trans­la­tor and trans­la­tion. Accord­ing to this view, Joseph’s trans­la­tion was not a lit­er­al ren­der­ing of the papyri as a con­ven­tion­al trans­la­tion would be. Rather, the phys­i­cal arti­facts pro­vid­ed an occa­sion for med­i­ta­tion, reflec­tion, and rev­e­la­tion. They cat­alyzed a process where­by God gave to Joseph Smith a rev­e­la­tion about the life of Abra­ham, even if that rev­e­la­tion did not direct­ly cor­re­late to the char­ac­ters on the papyri.”

As pre­vi­ous­ly dis­cussed, Joseph fre­quent­ly used the word “trans­late” in ref­er­ence to his work with the papyri. Accord­ing­ly, the Church the­o­rizes that per­haps Joseph did not actu­al­ly trans­late the Book of Abra­ham in the tra­di­tion­al sense but instead received it through rev­e­la­tion. The Church’s essay goes so far as to claim that “Joseph Smith did not claim to know the ancient lan­guages of the records that he was trans­lat­ing.” There­fore, the Church alters the def­i­n­i­tion of “trans­late” to mean that Joseph “trans­mit­ted” infor­ma­tion about Abra­ham from a heav­en­ly sphere to an earth­ly sphere. If we fol­low this log­ic, Joseph could have been pre­sent­ed with any object (includ­ing objects whol­ly unre­lat­ed to the Book of Abra­ham) and learned about the life and teach­ings of Abra­ham (or any oth­er topic).

As a pre­lim­i­nary mat­ter, the Church’s asser­tion that Joseph “did not claim to know ancient lan­guages” is inac­cu­rate. As not­ed by Rit­ner, in Joseph Smith’s pub­lished 1844 “Appeal to the Freemen of the State of Ver­mont, the ‘Brave Green Moun­tain Boys,’ and Hon­est Men,” Smith claimed to know Chaldean and Egypt­ian, among oth­er languages.

Regard­less, the Church’s re-def­i­n­i­tion of the term “trans­late” is accom­pa­nied with a vari­ety of prob­lems and unan­swered ques­tions. Why would Joseph need a phys­i­cal object, such as the papyri, to receive rev­e­la­tion (par­tic­u­lar­ly when he received numer­ous rev­e­la­tions in the Doc­trine and Covenants with­out the assis­tance of a rev­e­la­to­ry cat­a­lyst)? Why would Joseph pay $2,400 to obtain papyri that bore no rela­tion­ship to Abra­ham in order to then receive the Book of Abra­ham via revelation?

More impor­tant­ly, why would Joseph (1) tell peo­ple he was trans­lat­ing the papyri; (2) study the Egypt­ian on the papyri; and (3) cre­ate an entire Gram­mar and Alpha­bet if he was not actu­al­ly trans­lat­ing the papyri? Joseph clear­ly knew the dif­fer­ence between trans­la­tion and rev­e­la­tion as evi­denced the dif­fer­ing ori­gins of the Book of Mor­mon and Doc­trine and Covenants. Why, then, would he claim to have trans­lat­ed the Book of Abra­ham if he actu­al­ly received it through revelation?

Sim­ply stat­ed, the Church’s asser­tion that the papyri were mere­ly a cat­a­lyst for rev­e­la­tion does not with­stand care­ful scrutiny.

12. Joseph Smith’s Five Sources for Com­pos­ing the Book of Abra­ham: Near­ly all of the Book of Abra­ham can be account­ed for in five dif­fer­ent 19th Cen­tu­ry texts that were avail­able to Joseph Smith. LDS his­to­ri­an and for­mer CES edu­ca­tor Grant Palmer ana­lyzes these five texts in chap­ter 1 of his book, An Insider’s View of Mor­mon Ori­gins. The fol­low­ing is a sum­ma­ry of his analy­sis (and a more detailed excerpt can he found here):

  • Abra­ham 1; Fac­sim­i­le #1, #3: Abraham’s bio­graph­i­cal infor­ma­tion in Abra­ham 1 and Joseph Smith’s claim of what these two Fac­sim­i­le pic­tures por­tray comes from The Works of Flav­ius Jose­phus. Joseph owned an 1830 edi­tion of this book. Joseph’s detailed expla­na­tions for the indi­vid­ual Egypt­ian char­ac­ters on these two Fac­sim­i­les in the Book of Abra­ham have been thor­ough­ly dis­cred­it­ed by Egyptologists.
  • Abra­ham 2, 4–5: Eighty-six per­cent of the vers­es in these three chap­ters came from Gen­e­sis, 1, 2, 12, and 11:28–29. This mate­r­i­al came from a 1769 edi­tion or lat­er print­ing of the King James Ver­sion of the Bible (includ­ing its trans­la­tion errors).
  • Abra­ham 3; Fac­sim­i­le 2: The text of Abra­ham 3 and Fac­sim­i­le 2 con­tains some remark­able resem­blances to the astro­nom­i­cal con­cepts, phras­es, and oth­er motifs found in Thomas Dick’s, Phi­los­o­phy of a Future State. Smith owned an 1830 copy of this book.
  • Abra­ham 3; Fac­sim­i­le 2: Thomas Taylor’s 1816 book, The Six Books of Pro­clus on the The­ol­o­gy of Pla­to, espe­cial­ly vol­ume 2, also con­tains most of the motifs in Abra­ham 3 and Fac­sim­i­le 2. Dick and Tay­lor both con­tain a num­ber of exact phras­es found in Abra­ham 3 and Fac­sim­i­le 2.
  • Strange names: The few Hebrew names and phras­es found in the Book of Abra­ham are com­pat­i­ble with Joseph Smith’s study with Hebrew schol­ar Joshua Seixas dur­ing the win­ter of 1835–36, in Ohio.

13. Infor­ma­tion: There is a great deal of read­i­ly-avail­able online infor­ma­tion regard­ing the Book of Abra­ham, includ­ing Charles M. Larson’s book, By His Own Hand upon Papyrus, and Kevin Mathie’s Exam­in­ing the Book of Abra­ham. Addi­tion­al­ly, the fol­low­ing video gives a con­cise overview of the Book of Abraham.

14. Con­clu­sions: Kevin Math­ie iden­ti­fies the fol­low­ing con­clu­sions we can draw from the BOA:

  • Joseph Smith was clear in his state­ments and in his writ­ings that he was “trans­lat­ing” text from the papyri (rather than just using the papyri as a cat­a­lyst for rev­e­la­tion). Fur­ther­more, Church lead­ers after Joseph, begin­ning with Brigham Young, were adamant that the Book of Abra­ham is a holo­graph writ­ten by Abraham.
  • Schol­ars now know how to read ancient Egypt­ian, and are very famil­iar with ancient Egypt­ian reli­gious con­cepts and prac­tices. The very same papyri that were used in the cre­ation of the Book of Abra­ham, can be, and have been, trans­lat­ed by com­pe­tent Egyp­tol­o­gists (includ­ing those at BYU). These schol­ar­ly trans­la­tions make no men­tion of Abra­ham, nor do the papyri con­tain any­thing resem­bling the text of the Book of Abraham.
  • The exist­ing Fac­sim­i­les have been thor­ough­ly exam­ined by Egyp­tol­o­gists and have been found to be very dif­fer­ent from Joseph Smith’s inter­pre­ta­tions. At best, there are only super­fi­cial sim­i­lar­i­ties in a few figures.
  • The text of the Book of Abra­ham con­tains anachro­nisms — names of peo­ple and places that did not exist in Abra­ham’s day. Even Fac­sim­i­le #1 could not have been pro­duced “by the hand” of Abra­ham, hav­ing been dat­ed to be at least 14 cen­turies too recent. Addi­tion­al­ly, there are spe­cif­ic con­cepts in the Book of Abra­ham that reflects a 19th-cen­tu­ry, New­ton­ian cosmology.

The evi­dence demon­strates that the Book of Abra­ham is not what Joseph Smith claimed. Joseph may have thought he was uti­liz­ing a holo­graph­ic doc­u­ment from Abra­ham, but it is clear that this was not the case. The papyrus that Joseph claimed to be the Book of Abra­ham is dat­ed at least 1,400 years after Abraham’s death, and very pos­si­bly close to 2,000 years lat­er (not to men­tion the fact that schol­ars can now trans­late the papyrus and deter­mine what they real­ly say). And, even if Joseph received the Book of Abra­ham sole­ly from inspi­ra­tion and unre­lat­ed to any papyrus or phys­i­cal doc­u­ment — as some church mem­bers are now begin­ning to claim (despite state­ments from numer­ous prophets to the con­trary) — this the­o­ry does not explain the anachro­nisms found with­in the Book of Abra­ham. A much more plau­si­ble expla­na­tion is that the Book of Abra­ham was cre­at­ed by Joseph Smith rather than Abraham.

Series Nav­i­ga­tion: Leav­ing the Church — Eric Nel­son« Leav­ing the Church: A Com­pi­la­tion of the Evi­dence Against the LDS ChurchLeav­ing the Church, Part 3 — Kinder­hook Plates »



, ,



Notify of

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Would love your thoughts, please comment.x