The Book of Abraham

By Bill McKeever

According to the Documentary History of the Church (DHC) 2:235, it was on July 3, 1835 when Michael Chandler “came to Kirtland (OH) to exhibit some Egyptian mummies.” According to the record, “There were four human figures, together with some two or more rolls of papyrus covered with hieroglyphic figures and devices.” Chandler’s display so intrigued the Mormons living in Kirtland that they told the traveling showman how their prophet, Joseph Smith, had the ability to translate the papyri.

When Smith was shown the ancient writing, he claimed that he could translate them and proceeded to give Chandler a brief interpretation. Page 235 states that, for this service, Chandler gave Smith a “certificate” which said in part:

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

How Chandler could make such a statement is a mystery since he was not an expert in this field. The fact is, there was nobody in the United States who at this time could claim to have expertise in the translation of Egyptian hieroglyphics. The Rosetta Stone, which was instrumental in allowing scholars to decipher the hieroglyphics, had only been recently found (1799) and whatever few “experts” there were in the Egyptian language resided in Europe.

In a way, Smith’s bravado demonstrates his gift as a confidence man. Without any Egyptian linguists, he knew how difficult it would be to prove any of his so-called translations untrue. Since he had gotten away with this ploy for five years by claiming that the Book of Mormon was written in “Reformed Egyptian,” why shouldn’t this ruse work again? Smith seemed to use the limited expertise of his time to full advantage.

After obtaining the papyri, Smith “commenced the translation of some of the characters or hieroglyphics.” In doing so, Smith proclaimed “that one of the roles contained the writings of Abraham, another the writings of Joseph of Egypt” (Documentary History of the Church (DHC) 2:236). According to the preface to the Book of Abraham, Smith believed his document was actually written by Abraham’s “own hand written upon papyrus.”

Imagine for a moment what a find this would be if, in fact, Smith had really discovered the writings of Abraham and Joseph. They would be priceless for they would be the oldest manuscripts available written by someone mentioned in the Bible. In fact, they would be the only autograph manuscripts available. To say the papyri obtained by Smith were written by both Abraham and Joseph would predate the Christian era by about 2,000 years!

For a sum of $2400, Smith’s followers were able to convince Chandler to part with his exhibit, thus enabling their beloved prophet to continue “translating” the text. Smith would continue with this project, but he would not be able to finish it. Eventually he would be killed by a mob while incarcerated at a jail located in Carthage, Illinois. After his death the papyri would be lost. Many believed it was destroyed in the great Chicago fire, never to be recovered.

In 1880 the Mormon Church canonized the Book of Abraham and it became part of the Pearl of Great Price. Standing side by side with the Bible, Book of Mormon and Doctrine and Covenants, this was included as part of Mormonism’s “Standard Works.”

In time more and more men would become familiar with the Egyptian language. In 1912 Smith’s translation would be called into serious question by an Episcopalian Bishop named F.S. Spaulding. Spaulding published a 31-page booklet entitled “Joseph Smith, Jun., As a Translator.” In it he included the findings of eight scholars who had examined the “facsimiles” or drawings which are found in the Book of Abraham. All concluded that Smith’s translation was erroneous. The Mormons responded by soliciting the services of a man named J.C. Homans who wrote under the assumed name of “Dr. Robert C. Webb, Ph.D.” Homans was neither an Egyptologist nor did he hold a doctorate degree. Although his arguments failed to convince the learned, they were enough to appease the faithful Latter-day Saint, so “testimony” once again reigned over fact.

In 1967 interest in the Book of Abraham again surfaced when the papyri Smith used in 1835 were found in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. They were eventually given back to the LDS Church. One would think that, if Joseph Smith were indeed a prophet who was inspired by God to translate the Book of Abraham, this would have been the perfect opportunity to have proved it. However, this was not to be the case. Experts once again proved Smith’s translation was incorrect. Not only was Smith’s translation erroneous, but he completely missed the time period in which the papyri were written. Smith claimed his papyri were written by Abraham around 4,000 years ago; however, experts agree that the papyri go back only as far as the time of Christ.

Whereas Smith claimed his papyri told the story of Abraham’s adventures in Egypt, the experts concur that what Smith had in his possession was nothing more than a portion of a funerary text known as the Book of Breathings, a condensed version of the Book of Dead.

Accompanying the written portion of the Book of Abraham were three illustrations or “facsimiles.” Facsimile No. 1 shows one figure standing and the other lying on a lion-headed table. An examination of the Smith papyri shows that portions were torn and missing. Because of the torn condition of Smith’s original, there is neither head nor hand on the standing figure, and the torso of the figure in the lying down position is missing as well (from just below the waist and up to the neck). This, however, did not prevent Smith from improvising. It is easy to notice that a human head has been pencilled in on the standing figure while a hand holding what appears to be a knife has also been inserted. Smith claimed this standing figure represents the “idolatrous priest of Elkenah attempting to offer up Abraham [the figure lying down on what Smith claimed was an “altar”] as a sacrifice.” Above the head of “Abraham” is the figure of a bird Smith calls “the angel of the Lord.”

Below the “altar” are figures which Smith said represented the idolatrous gods of Elkenah, Libnah, Mahmackrah, and Korash. Below these figures is the drawing of a crocodile; Smith labels this “The idolatrous god of Pharaoh.” As previously mentioned, this facsimile depicts nothing more than a portion of Egyptian mythology.

Dr. Robert K. Ritter, associate professor of Egyptology at the University of Chicago stated, “I want to be absolutely clear on this. There simply is no justification for the kind of interpretations that appear in facsimile one or facsimile three. They are wrong with regard to the hieroglyphs, they are wrong with regard to the gender, they are wrong with regard to the understanding of what the scene actually represents and where they are used in the body of the text. They are wrong there as well. In short there is no historical validity for the interpretations in that book. None whatsoever.” (The Lost Book of Abraham DVD).

Despite the fact that Smith’s “translation” has been found to be incorrect in every detail, the LDS Church stubbornly continues to include his pretended “Book of Abraham” as part of its scripture. However, the evidence has forced the LDS Church to revise its explanation as to how Smith arrived at this conclusions. In 2013 the LDS Church announced a new edition of its scriptures. Under the heading “Introductory Note,” previous editions of the Pearl of Great Price said the Book of Abraham is “a translation from the Egyptian papyri,” thus giving the impression that Smith rendered the Egyptian text into English using a generally understood method. However, the 2013 edition of the Pearl of Great Price now states that the Book of Abraham is “an inspired translation.” It is obvious that this change was necessary since a generally understood method of translation from the Egyptian would not at all allow for the explanations given by Smith.

For more articles on the Standard Works in Mormonism, click here.

Addendum: Facsimile No. 1

Dr. Richard Parker, Professor of Egyptology at Brown University states that Smith’s Facsimile No.1 “is a well-known scene from the Osiris mysteries, with Anubis, the jackal-headed god, on the left ministering to the dead Osiris on the bier. The pencilled(?) restoration is incorrect. Anubis should be jackal-headed. The left arm of Osiris is in reality lying at his side under him. The apparent upper hand is part of the wing of a second bird which is hovering over the erect phallus of Osirus (now broken away). The second bird is Isis and she is magically impregnated by the dead Osiris and then later gives birth to Horus who avenges his father and takes over the inheritance. The complete bird represents Nephthys, sister to Osiris and Isis. Beneath the bier are four canopic jars with heads representative of the four sons of Horus, human-headed Imseti, baboon-headed Hapy, jackal-headed Duamutef and falcon-headed Kebehsenuf.”

In order for the dead to achieve a glorious afterlife, the ancient Egyptians believed the heart of the deceased would be placed on a scale and weighed. Thoth, the scribe of the gods, noted the good and bad which the heart contained. If the heart balanced perfectly against a feather taken from the headdress of the goddess Maat, the deceased was entitled to eternal life. To help them reach the eternal paradise, Egyptian priests put together what is known as The Book of Dead which was placed in the tomb of the deceased.

(Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, Summer 1968, pg.86.)

Addendum: Eight Scholars on Joseph Smith’s Book of Abraham Translation

In his 1912 publication of “Joseph Smith, Jr., As a Translator,” J.S. Spaulding solicited the views of eight scholars regarding Joseph Smith’s Book of Abraham translation. Below are excerpts from their comments:

“It is difficult to deal seriously with Joseph Smith’s impudent fraud.”

Dr. A.H. Sayce, Oxford, England

“I have examined the illustrations given in the ‘Pearl of Great Price.’ In the first place, they are copies (very badly done) of well known Egyptian subjects of which I have dozens of examples. Secondly, they are all many centuries later than Abraham.”

Dr. W.M. Flinders Petrie, London University

“Joseph Smith’s interpretation of them as part of a unique revelation through Abraham, therefore, very clearly demonstrates that he 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

“The ‘Book of Abraham,’ it is hardly necessary to say, is a pure fabrication.”

Dr. Arthur C. Mace, Assist. Curator, Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY, Dept. of Egyptian Art

“The plates contained in the ‘Pearl of Great Price’ are rather comical and a very poor imitation of Egyptian originals.”

Dr. John Peters, Univ. of Pennsylvania

“…the explanatory notes to his facsimiles cannot be taken seriously by any scholar, as they seem to be undoubtedly the work of pure imagination.”

Rev. Prof. C.A.B. Mercer, Ph.D., Western Theological Seminary, Custodian Hibbard Collection, Egyptian Reproductions.

“The Egyptian papyrus which Smith declared to be the ‘Book of Abraham,’ and ‘translated’ or explained in his fantastical way, and of which are three specimens are published in the ‘Pearl of Great Price’ are parts of the well known ‘Book of the Dead.’ Although the reproductions are very bad, one can easily recognize familiar scenes from this book.”

Dr. Edward Meyer, University of Berlin

“A careful study has convinced me that Smith probably believed seriously to have deciphered the ancient hieroglyphics, but that he utterly failed. What he calls the ‘Book of Abraham’ is a funeral Egyptian text, probably not older than the Greek ages.”

Dr. Friedrich Freiheer Von Bissing, Professor of Egyptology in the University of Munich