Hey guys, so if you’re not already aware, the Latter-day Saint ‘Book of Abraham’ is one of the most controversial aspects of our faith. In this episode, we’re going to talk about what the hubbub is all about, and what our options are when it comes to dealing with it.
So in general, we don’t know a whole lot about how Joseph Smith received his scriptural “translations” and revelations. But we do know that the process was sometimes different, depending on the project. Sometimes he used the Urim and Thummim or seer stone, sometimes a scripture seemed to just catalyze a sudden revelatory scriptural expansion (Doctrine and Covenants 7 is a translation of a document written by John the Revelator that Joseph didn’t even physically have), and other times it’s unclear how much came from revelation and how much came from Joseph just hitting the books.
Considering how little we know about the process underlying his revelatory projects, it’s not surprising that we really don’t know exactly how Joseph produced the Book of Abraham. Now, Joseph did have in his possession ancient Egyptian papyri that he believed contained the writings of Abraham. Unfortunately, a good portion of the original papyri was destroyed in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. In the 1960s some surviving fragments resurfaced, including the original illustration or “vignette” for Facsimile 1.
But as it turned out, both Latter-day Saint and non-Latter-day Saint egyptologists agree that the text we have on the surviving papyri does not translate to what we have in the Book of Abraham. So we’re stuck to grapple with the question:
What exactly is the relationship between the papyri and our Book of Abraham? Generally, people fall into one of 3 categories outlined by Egyptologist John Gee: People believe that Joseph produced the Book of Abraham …from the surviving fragments of papyri we still have … from papyri that were destroyed, that we no longer have … or he produced it without the aid of any papyri at all.
The first theory is heavily advocated for by antagonists of our faith. The text from the surviving fragments does not translate as the Book of Abraham. Instead, they contain pieces of so-called funerary texts such as The Document of Breathing Made by Isis (also known as the Book of Breathings) belonging to a guy named Hor, and multiple copies of a text known as the Book of the Dead. Thus, if you believe that Joseph was attempting to translate the surviving papyri, then you can easily discredit him as a false prophet. But it should be noted that this theory does not match up with the eyewitness evidence we have of the translation:
“The 19th-century eyewitnesses, both Mormon and non-Mormon, favorable and hostile to the Church, agree that the Book of Abraham was translated from a long roll of papyrus that was still a long roll in the 1840s and 1850s. The current fragments of the Joseph Smith Papyri, however, were all mounted on heavy paper and placed in glass frames in 1837. None of them can be the long roll described in the 1840s and 1850s. So these fragments are specifically not the source of the Book of Abraham according to the eyewitnesses.”
The next question is, well what about Facsimile 1? It’s right there on the surviving papyri. Doesn’t it make sense, then, that the text surrounding this illustration should translate to what we have in the Book of Abraham? While to us that might make sense, in ancient Egyptian scrolls, however, sometimes these illustrations had no clear relationship with their surrounding text. And feel free to pause and read these quotes from people smarter than I am who back that up.
In fact, this same guy, Hor, also owned a copy of the Book of the Dead written by the same scribe and illustrator, and more than half of the pictures don’t match with the text surrounding them. On top of that, “There are actually no other instances of this scene being adjacent to the Book of Breathings …” So while the text may not belong to the Book of Abraham, the text also doesn’t seem to belong to Facsimile 1, raising the question: What does Facsimile 1 belong to?
The 2nd theory is that Joseph got the Book of Abraham from a long roll of papyrus that has since been destroyed. This theory accommodates the eyewitness evidence I quoted earlier, but it also comes with its challenges: For example, if Facsimile 1 was originally attached to this long roll, some scholars disagree on whether the scroll would have been long enough for both the Book of Breathings and the Book of Abraham. But it’s also possible that the “long roll” wasn’t Hor’s scroll at all, but one of the others that were destroyed. This theory is frustrating both to members and non-members simply because it can’t be verified since we don’t have the papyri.
The 3rd theory is that the text that was revealed to Joseph had nothing to do with any of the papyri, and it only served as a catalyst that sparked the flow of revelation. There is a precedent for this kind of revelation in some of Joseph’s other works, but the challenge is that Joseph definitely believed he had a physical document containing Abrahamic writings. So this theory would assume that Joseph was wrong about that and that the papyri just set him on a revelatory path.
You are free to believe whichever theory you’d like, or none of them at all. Now, there are still many other unanswered questions associated with the Book of Abraham. For example, lots of people have questions about Joseph’s interpretations of the Facsimiles. We’re going to dive into that in a separate episode, so if you have questions about the Facsimiles, hold onto those. Others also wonder about the historical believability of the Book of Abraham. That also deserves an episode but until then I’d refer you to this video from PearlofGreatPriceCentral.org. Check out the resources in the description for more info, and have a great day.
- The Church’s gospel topics essay on this subject: https://bit.ly/39VSIVZ
- Quentin Barney’s thesis and comparative study of Facsimile 3: https://bit.ly/3aY75KB
- Some of Jeff Lindsay’s work on this subject: https://bit.ly/2wrFti4
- PearlofGreatPriceCentral.com has fantastic, in-depth research on this: https://bit.ly/39WT2DR
I highly recommend the following literature:
“A Guide to the Joseph Smith Papyri,” by John Gee
“An Introduction to the Book of Abraham,” by John Gee
“The Pearl of Greatest Price,” by Terryl Givens, with Brian Hauglid