Gospel Topics Essay: Translation and Historicity of the Book of Abraham
By Eric Johnson
To see an introduction to the Gospel Topics essays, click here.
The entire essay is printed below, underlined, with my commentary included throughout. Because I will try to be short and to the point as much as possible, a number of sites (many from MRM) to support my disagreement are included. I encourage interested readers to consider these sources.
Also see the blog “The Book of Abraham: A Mormon Conundrum”
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints embraces the book of Abraham as scripture.
Before we go any further, I must comment on the word embraces. How can the Mormon Church leaders “embrace” the Book of Abraham? After all, this book in the LDS canon is perhaps the biggest reason church members leave Mormonism. There is plenty of evidence to show the Book of Abraham is fraudulent, a false bill of sales, an invitation to join a Ponzi scheme, and so much worse. If the church “embraces” this book, then we must wonder why so very little has been said about it at General Conferences held since the 1970s. Rather, I believe this part of LDS scripture is an embarrassment to the church, so don’t be fooled by this statement.
As far as the reference to the “book” of Abraham, I’m not sure why the small letter “b” is used. The “Book” of Mormon is always capitalized. And although many sources on lds.org don’t capitalize the word “book,” others do. (For example, see here.) It is also capitalized in the explanatory note preceding the book in the LDS canon (“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.”) The media traditionally capitalize it (i.e. see here and here). Even LDS apologists capitalize it. No explanation is given for making it lowercased, but in this article, I will retain the traditional capitalized “Book” of Abraham and leave the underlined portions intact.
This book, a record of the biblical prophet and patriarch Abraham, recounts how Abraham sought the blessings of the priesthood, rejected the idolatry of his father, covenanted with Jehovah, married Sarai, moved to Canaan and Egypt, and received knowledge about the Creation. The book of Abraham largely follows the biblical narrative but adds important information regarding Abraham’s life and teachings.
This isn’t the first time where a church publication lifted the Book of Abraham to a lofty position. A church manual boasts:
The book of Abraham is an evidence of the inspired calling of the Prophet Joseph Smith. It came forth at a time when the study of the ancient Egyptian language and culture was just beginning. The scholars of the 1800s had scarcely begun to explore the field of Egyptology, and yet, with no formal training in ancient languages and no knowledge of ancient Egypt (except his work with the Book of Mormon), Joseph Smith began his translation of the ancient manuscripts. His knowledge and ability came through the power and gift of God, together with his own determination and faith. (Pearl of Great Price Student Manual Religion 327, 2000, p. 29).
Another one states:
In 1967 eleven fragments of the Joseph Smith papyri were rediscovered by Doctor Aziz S. Atiya, in the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art. Studies of them have confirmed that they are mainly ancient Egyptian funerary texts of the sort commonly buried with royalty and nobility and designed to guide them through their eternal journeyings. This has renewed the question about the connection between the records and the book of Abraham. Joseph Smith did not explain the method of translating the book of Abraham, just as he did not explain fully how the Book of Mormon was translated. Nevertheless, like the Book of Mormon, the book of Abraham is its own evidence that it came about through the gift and power of God (Church History in the Fulness of Times: Religion 341-43, p. 258).
According to these manuals, Smith was inspired. Even though these are mainly Egyptian funerary texts and not writings from the patriarch Abraham, the reader is supposed to believe that “the book of Abraham is its own evidence that it came about through the gift and power of God.”
So what do we do with the Book of Abraham? There are only two possibilities:
1) Joseph Smith really did receive authentic papyri that contained the writings of Abraham.
2) Joseph Smith really never had papyri with writings of Abraham.
For the sake of argument, let’s assume the first possibility is correct and Smith did receive authentic papyri filled with the words of Abraham. If this is the case, then we still have two more possibilities:
1) Joseph Smith really did know how to translate these Egyptian hieroglyphics and put them into English, which we have today and found in the Book of Abraham.
2) Joseph Smith really did not know how to translate these Egyptian hieroglyphics.
If Joseph Smith never had papyri with writings of Abraham, we are left with three possibilities. Joseph Smith was
As the Gospel Topics essay explains, the Mormon Church continues to “embrace the book of Abraham as scripture.” In other words, a person must have faith that this book is authentic (#1 in the first scenario) and translatable by the hand of Joseph Smith (#1 in the second scenario). If the second possibility in either scenario is correct, then the Book of Abraham is not what it is touted to be by LDS Church leaders.
The book of Abraham was first published in 1842 and was canonized as part of the Pearl of Great Price in 1880. The book originated with Egyptian papyri that Joseph Smith translated beginning in 1835. Many people saw the papyri, but no eyewitness account of the translation survives, making it impossible to reconstruct the process. Only small fragments of the long papyrus scrolls once in Joseph Smith’s possession exist today. The relationship between those fragments and the text we have today is largely a matter of conjecture.
Let’s provide a little background. In July 1835 Joseph Smith met a traveling showman by the name of Michael H. Chandler who was displaying four Egyptian mummies in Kirtland, Ohio. Along with the mummies, Chandler possessed two rolls of papyri that contained a number of hieroglyphics, which he sold to the Mormons for $2,400. The next day, Smith proclaimed that the manuscripts were actually written by none other than two Old Testament patriarchs:
I 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, etc. (History of the Church, 2:235–36.)
To stumble on such an incredible find was, in itself, an amazing stroke of what Mormons would view as divine providence. Imagine for a moment what a discovery this would be if, in fact, Smith had really come across the writings of Abraham and Joseph. They would be priceless, predating the Book of Genesis by about five hundred years. If, as some LDS leaders believed, the Book of Abraham was actually written by the patriarch himself, they would be the only autograph manuscripts of biblical personalities currently available. For example, President Wilford Woodruff said,
The Lord is Blessing Joseph with Power to reveal mysteries of the kingdom of God; to translate through the urim and Thummim Ancient records & Hyeroglyphics as old as Abraham or Adam. . . . Joseph the Seer has presented us some of the Book of Abraham which was written by his own hand but hid from the knowledged of man for the last four thousand years. . . . (Susan Staker, ed., Waiting for World’s End: The Diaries of Wilford Woodruff (Salt Lake City, Utah: Signature Books, 1993), 50-51. Ellipsis and spelling in original. For more information on this topic, see here.)
Of the two papyri, Smith chose to focus on the one he claimed was written by the patriarch Abraham, who, according to the text, supposedly held the priesthood well before it was even formulated by God in the days of the Levites. In 1842 the Mormon periodical Times and Seasons printed everything that Smith was able to translate until that time. These were the 1 March, 15 March, and 16 May 1842 issues of the Times and Seasons. Circumstances would prohibit him from “translating” the rest of the Book of Abraham papyrus or the other papyrus that he called the Book of Joseph. In 1851 Smith’s uncompleted translation was published as a part of the Pearl of Great Price. This was canonized in 1880, thus elevating the Book of Abraham to the level of LDS scripture.
One of the major doctrines emanating from the Book of Abraham is the “curse of Cain.” Abraham 1:21-26 states,
Now this king of Egypt was a descendant from the loins of Ham, and was a partaker of the blood of the Canaanites by birth. From this descent sprang all the Egyptians, and thus the blood of the Canaanites was preserved in the land. The land of Egypt being first discovered by a woman, who was the daughter of Ham, and the daughter of Egyptus, which in the Chaldean signifies Egypt, which signifies that which is forbidden; When this woman discovered the land it was under water, who afterward settled her sons in it; and thus, from Ham, sprang that race which preserved the curse in the land. Now the first government of Egypt was established by Pharaoh, the eldest son of Egyptus, the daughter of Ham, and it was after the manner of the government of Ham, which was patriarchal. Pharaoh, being a righteous man, established his kingdom and judged his people wisely and justly all his days, seeking earnestly to imitate that order established by the fathers in the first generations, in the days of the first patriarchal reign, even in the reign of Adam, and also of Noah, his father, who blessed him with the blessings of the earth, and with the blessings of wisdom, but cursed him as pertaining to the Priesthood.
Smith used this passage in 1836 to claim that those with African heritage had inherited this “curse,” the impetus for the later ban of Blacks from the LDS priesthood. It wasn’t until 1978 when this stringent ban was lifted. Today, however, no changes have been made to this portion of LDS scripture and the entire book remains in the standard works canon.
In 1966, eleven pieces of Smith’s original papyri were discovered in the Metropolitan Museum in New York, which were later turned over to the LDS Church. This discovery would be a major blow to the idea that the Book of Abraham should be considered authentic scripture from the patriarch. Thus, the Gospel Topics essay says that ““only small fragments of the long papyrus scrolls once in Joseph Smith’s possession exist today” and that there is a large segment of the scroll now missing. Such an assertion is simply not true. Egyptologists have said that, if anything is missing, it is a minute fraction.
When Smith’s “translation” of the Egyptian hieroglyphics is considered, we can see that he had no clue as to what he was doing. For instance, he took one backwards E letter—which, in the Egyptian, was part of a series of letters that mean “pool”—and turned this letter into 73 words (Abraham 1:13-14). In fact, this practice was common throughout his “translation.” Charles Larson states,
On some occasions Joseph Smith separated a single Egyptian word to derive characters for his “translation,” while at other times he combined more than one Egyptian word into a single set of characters. In all cases his translation attributes a far more complex explanation to the Egyptian letters and words of Papyrus Joseph Smith XI than do professional Egyptologists, and Smith ascribes meanings to words which are totally unrelated to their actual denotation. Thus, Joseph Smith’s “translation” is completely incorrect in both method and content. (By His Own Hand Upon Papyrus, 96)
The content of the writing is not even close to what Smith “translates,” a fact offered by David Persuitte:
Papyrus No. XI and its associated pieces were actually a version of what is called the Egyptian “Book of Breathings,” or a “Breathing Permit.” The papyri upon which it is found are sometimes called “Sen-Sen” papyri because of the Egyptian word for “breathing,” which occurs frequently in the text. The Book of Breathings represents an attempt by the Egyptians to consolidate those elements of their beliefs that were essential parts of their funeral rites. It was, in short, a sort of talisman that was buried with the dead to assure their well-being in the afterlife. (Joseph Smith and the Origins of the Book of Mormon, 292).
According to Dr. Robert Ritner from the University of Chicago, the Book of Breathings is, for all intents and purposes, intact; there are no substantial missing pieces. He stated,
Assuming no reason that this particular Book of Breathings scroll must be expanded much beyond the surviving length, I have now read the entire document from the beginning to the end and have made up what one could make out on the poor copy of the final vignette. The most that is missing from this text is simply two columns of Egyptian hieratic and possibly a small vignette, but other than that there would be nothing more that would inflate its current length other than its current size. It is both unprecedented and unreasonable to assume that an intrusive text about a completely different matter, a narrative history about Abraham and his descendants, would have been inserted into a document whose beginning, middle, and end is devoted specifically to the resurrection of an Egyptian priest. It would disrupt the document and have nothing to do with this content. (The Lost Book of Abraham, quoted at 40 minutes)
I’ll quote Dr. Ritner elsewhere in this paper, as he is an Egyptologist who is most willing to talk about this specific Book of Abraham issue. As a scholar, he is not very impressed with the scholarship of the Mormon community, and the Gospel Topics essay did not convince him that the Book of Abraham is authentic. In a review of the essay called “A Response to ‘Translation and Historicity of the Book of Abraham,'” Dr. Ritner wrote:
The recent web posting on the Book of Abraham by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter- Day Saints (hereafter the LDS church) represents new reflection on a document whose authenticity as verifiable history is now officially acknowledged to be in serious dispute. Thus the position paper concludes with a concession by noting (unnamed) modern scholarly opposition to the Book of Abraham, followed by a defense against any such scholarly debate: “The veracity and value of the book of Abraham cannot be settled by scholarly debate concerning the book’s translation and historicity.” Rather, the truth of the book is sought in ways that cannot be verified externally, relying exclusively upon traditional faith: “a careful study of its teachings, sincere prayer, and the confirmation of the Spirit.”
Such a declaration may seem reasonable to those already predisposed to accept it, but on closer reading, the LDS church posting suggests discomfort with its own conclusions and reasoning. Not a single opposing scholar is mentioned by name, nor are their reasons for rejecting the Book of Abraham. Yet the LDS paper attempts to engage in scholarly debate from a one-sided position, repeatedly citing in the footnotes the same limited set of apologists who are primarily church employees at BYU in Provo. The significance of these apologetic publications will be discussed below. If scholarly dispute over translation and historicity is ultimately irrelevant, why bother to devote extended paragraphs to rebuttals of unmentioned objections on “Translation and the Book of Abraham,” “The Papyri,” and “The Book of Abraham and the Ancient World”?
According to Dr. Ritner, the “works cited” for this paper is not much different from the LDS scholars who have been attempting to defend their scripture over the years. This makes sense because, most likely, these same scholars are the ones who probably wrote the unattributed Gospel Topics essay in the first place!
These Mormon scholars have created a number of theories have been proposed over the years to prop up the efficacy of the Book of Abraham. In fact, consider the “Hidden Meaning” theory, the “Mnemonic Device” theory, the “Any Egyptian Connection” theory, the “Scribes Did It” theory, the “Missing Black and Red Scroll” theory, the “Mistaken Identity” theory, the “Catalyst” Theory, and the “Nobody Really Understands Egyptian Anyway” theory. Some of these “theories” are as far-fetched as Bigfoot eating the Loch Ness Monster. Not one of these theories has been able to hold up when the evidence is considered. (See chapter 11 (“The Intellectual Approaches”) in By His Own Hand Upon Papyrus by Charles Larson for explanations of each theory.) Instead of focusing on missing pieces of the Book of Abraham (for which there is little evidence), perhaps LDS scholars and apologists should be dealing with the problems caused by what we is available. Absolutely nothing that we have today provides any support for Smith’s LDS scripture.
We do know some things about the translation process. The word translation typically assumes an expert knowledge of multiple languages. Joseph Smith claimed no expertise in any language. He readily acknowledged that he was one of the “weak things of the world,” called to speak words sent “from heaven.” Speaking of the translation of the Book of Mormon, the Lord said, “You cannot write that which is sacred save it be given you from me.” The same principle can be applied to the book of Abraham. The Lord did not require Joseph Smith to have knowledge of Egyptian. By the gift and power of God, Joseph received knowledge about the life and teachings of Abraham.
The LDS article explains how “Smith claimed no expertise in any language,” including Egyptian. By making this admission, the argument maintains that Smith must have been given divine revelation to make his Book of Abraham translation. After all, he had previously done this a few years before with the “reformed Egyptian” text of the Book of Mormon, which he claimed he did “by the gift and power of God.” And voila, here are the same words being used in this essay to show how his divine inspiration (rather than his understanding of Egyptian hieroglyphics) allowing him to make his translation of the Book of Abraham. Is this a coincidence? Hardly.
Comparing the Book of Mormon to the Book of Abraham, Christian author H. Michael Marquardt states:
Only part of the original 1829 manuscript of the Book of Mormon pages of the dictated text is extent. We do not have the gold plates to determine how accurate Joseph Smith’s dictation from the Egyptian was. But we do have the Egyptian papyri, Joseph Smith’s Egyptian Alphabet, and the Book of Abraham Translation Manuscripts. These later manuscripts together with Joseph Smith’s journal and knowing when his scribes worked with him all place the dictation process in the last half of 1835. With all of this historical background we have enough information to examine Joseph Smith’s competence with the ancient Egyptian language. (The Rise of Mormonism: 1816-1844, 407.)
Let’s consider how the LDS prophet was able to get away with this ploy. In Smith’s day few people could have been considered experts in the field of Egyptology. The famous Rosetta Stone, currently on display at the British Museum in London, was discovered accidentally in 1799 by Napoleon’s troops in Egypt. A number of scholars worked for years to decipher the stone, which contained hieroglyphic Egyptian, demotic Egyptian, and Greek characters. Finally, Jean Francois Champollion announced his results in 1822. Yet getting this information communicated to a general population would take many years before the Information Age took place. As Dr. Ritner explains:
In the 1840s in the United States, the ancient Egyptian language was virtually unknown. It had only been to be deciphered in 1822 and that knowledge simply had not crossed the Atlantic. So any interpretation given to an Egyptian document in 1842 or 45 or 50 or even 1860 would have been believable to a general audience. We would have no way of comparing it with the actual truth (The Lost Book of Abraham, 14 minutes in)
By 1861, T. Devéria had noted a series of anachronisms and absurdities in the supposed translations and woodcut vignettes, and in 1912 a solicitation for professional opinions on the matter drew uniformly derisive assessments from A. H. Sayce, W. M. F. Petrie, J. H. Breasted, A. C. Mace, J. Peters, S. A. B. Mercer, E. Meyer, and F. W. von Bissing Dr. Ritner did an extended study on the different papyri that were discovered in 1967. As far as Facsmilies 1 and 2, he writes:
Comparison of the surviving initial vignette of the Hôr papyrus with Facsimile 1 proves beyond doubt, as the LDS web post agrees, that it was “the vignette that became facsimile 1.” However, neither Facsimile 1 nor 2 is a true copy, and both contain added forgeries, including the human-head and knife of the supposed “idolatrous priest of Elkenah” (Fig. 3 on Facsimile 1) as can be seen in the crude pencil additions to the original papyrus sheet as mounted and “improved” for publication by the LDS church in 1842.
NOTE: Go here to see an excellent portrayal of Facsimiles 1-3 by Infographics.
In a video, he explained,
What this document really is is an extended prayer on behalf of a deceased Egyptian priest, which begins with an invocation to the god of mummification, probably, certainly with a picture of the god of mummification, to ensure the priest’s continued existence into the next world, and then it’s followed by a series of statements where “Oh deified Horus, may you walk as you head down in life, may your ears function, may your eyes function, may the gods receive you.” Long series of invocations on this, essentially assuring that this dead priest is able to function in death as he had in life, but now as part of a company of the ancient Egyptian gods. Abraham is not mentioned once. (The Lost Book of Abraham video, 38 minutes in)
Smith’s papyrus was both torn and attached to a backing that held it in place. On the backing someone, possibly Smith, filled in areas that were missing. An examination of Joseph Smith’s Facsimile No. 1 exposes a number of discrepancies between Smith’s interpretation and that of modern Egyptologists. Smith claimed that the facsimile portrays Abraham lying on an altar. Standing next to him is the idolatrous priest Elkanah who holds a knife in his hand. Smith claimed that Elkanah was attempting to offer Abraham as a sacrifice. Below the altar are figures that Smith describes as idolatrous gods. Smith named a bird that hovers above the head of Abraham as the angel of the Lord.
Richard A. Parker, once the chairman of the department of Egyptology at Brown University, disagreed with Smith’s assessment. He claimed:
This 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 Osiris (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 his inheritance. The complete bird represents Nephthys, sister to Osiris and Isis. Beneath the bier are the 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. (Richard A. Parker, “The Joseph Smith Papyri: A Preliminary Report,” Dialogue 3, no. 2 (summer 1968): 86.)
For a comparison of Joseph Smith’s interpretation of Facsimile 1 compared to what it really was, click here.
Other problems develop when Facsimile No. 2 is considered. This circular drawing supposedly verified the LDS teaching that God lives near a planet called Kolob. Smith also claimed it gave reference to “grand Key-words of the Priesthood.” (Explanation of figure seven opposite Facsimile No. 2.) Key words are an essential part of the LDS temple ceremony. Speaking specifically about Facsmilie 2, Dr. Ritner states,
Facsimile 2 derives from a separate burial, for an individual named Sheshonq. Large portions of this published “facsimile” were improperly inserted from unrelated papyri. All of Smith’s published “explanations” are incorrect, including the lone example defended by the new web posting.
According to Egyptologist Stephen E. Thompson:
Facsimile 2 is a drawing of an Egyptian funerary amulet known as a hypocephalus, which was placed under the head of the mummy and was intended to protect the head of the deceased, provide him with the sun’s life-giving warmth, and to make it possible for him to join the sun god Re in his celestial boat, and thereby insure his continued, pleasant existence in the next life. (Stephen Thompson, “Egyptology and the Book of Mormon,” Dialogue 28, no. 1 (spring 1995): 149–50.)
Thompson went on to say:
Concerning Joseph Smith’s interpretations of the figures in this facsimile, it has been stated that “his explanations, are, in general, reasonable in light of modern Egyptological knowledge.” A comparison of Smith’s interpretations with current Egyptological scholarship shows that this statement is also incorrect. (Ibid., 150.)
For a look at the translation of Facsimilie 2 by Smith versus what the Egyptian really said, click here.
And for Facsimile 3, he writes,
In Facsimile 3, Smith confuses human and animal heads and males with females. No amount of special pleading can change the female “Isis the great, the god’s mother” (Facsimile 3, Fig. 2) into the male “King Pharaoh, whose name is given in the characters above his hand,” as even the LDS author Michael D. Rhodes accepts. Here Smith also misunderstands “Pharaoh” as a personal name rather than a title meaning “king,” so he reads “king king” for a goddess’s name that he claims to have understood on the papyrus!
For a look at Facsimile 3, click here.
When the manuscript of the Book of Abraham became available in the 1960s, scholars were now able to investigate whether or not Joseph Smith was indeed a prophet inspired by God with the ability to translate another language. As it turns out, Smith had no clue about the Egyptian language. Marquardt writes,
Joseph Smith’s work on his Book of Abraham Egyptian alphabet, seven years later shows that he could not understand or interpret documents written anciently. From examinations done by Egyptologists, their studies show that Smith had not the slightest idea what the Egyptian characters meant relating to names, places, and subject matter. These manuscript pages clearly show that Joseph Smith pretended to translate Egyptian records. The claim that they had been written by the biblical Abraham is without a solid foundation. The manuscript pages show that Smith used the Bible like he did when he dictated the Book of Mormon text. (The Rise of Mormonism: 1816-1844, 406.)
Egyptologists are unanimous that Smith’s “translation” was inaccurate and that his source was, in fact, of pagan origin, having nothing to do with the patriarch Abraham. As Charles Larson explains,
Based on comparisons of the Metropolitan papyri to every available resource, including descriptions contemporary with Joseph Smith of the so-called Abraham and Joseph scrolls, as well as to a number of original translation manuscripts and other notes of the time, the papyrus scroll Joseph Smith represented as containing “the writings of Abraham” was shown to be merely a common pagan funeral papyrus of late date known as the Book of Breathings. The scroll thought to contain the “writings of Joseph of Egypt” was also identified as a typical late copy of the Egyptian Book of the Bead, which had been prepared for a woman named Ta-shert-Min. Neither scroll ever had anything to do with the biblical patriarchs Abraham or Joseph, except in the mind of Joseph Smith. (By His Own Hand Upon Papyrus, 173-74.)
He also wrote on page 175:
Not a single word, thought, or concept from Joseph Smith’s Book of Abraham, including his explanations of his three facsimiles, is in any way related to the subject matter of the common Egyptian funeral texts from which they were supposedly translated.
Dr. Lanny Bell, who teaches Egyptology at Brown University, adds,
From the evidence we have today, it’s quite safe to say that Joseph Smith did not have the Book of Abraham or the Book of Joseph in front of him in the form of these papyri because they bear no relationship to the context of these stories or his translation.
Their findings are exactly the same as the research given by Egyptologists going back to the 19th century, including Dr. A. H. Sayce (Oxford University), Dr. W.M. Flinders Petrie (London University), Dr. James H. Breasted (University of Chicago), Dr. Arthur C. Mace (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York), Dr. John Peters (University of Pennsylvania), Dr. Edward Meyer (University of Berlin), Dr. Freidrick Freiheer Von Bissing (University of Munich), and Dr. Samnuel A. B. Mercer (Western Theological Seminary). (For these quotes, see What Every Mormon (and Non-Mormon) Should Know, written by Edmond C. Gruss and Lane A. Thuet, pp. 162-164.) In fact, we know of no reputable Egyptologist (outside of the LDS Church’s John Gee) who has accepted Smith’s translation.
On many particulars, the book of Abraham is consistent with historical knowledge about the ancient world. Some of this knowledge, which is discussed later in this essay, had not yet been discovered or was not well known in 1842. But even this evidence of ancient origins, substantial though it may be, cannot prove the truthfulness of the book of Abraham any more than archaeological evidence can prove the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt or the Resurrection of the Son of God. The book of Abraham’s status as scripture ultimately rests on faith in the saving truths found within the book itself as witnessed by the Holy Ghost.
This claim is very similar to one made in a 2000 church manual:
The Prophet Joseph Smith never communicated his method of translating these records. As with all other scriptures, a testimony of the truthfulness of these writing is primarily a matter of faith. The greatest evidence of the truthfulness of the book of Abraham is not found in an analysis of physical evidence nor historical background, but in prayerful consideration of its contents and power. (The Pearl of Great Price Student Manual – Religion 327, 2000, p. 28).
Ahh, so here we have it. Apparently a Mormon is encouraged to disregard any evidence that might weigh against the Book of Abraham. Let’s take the examples given in the essay regarding archaeological evidence:
- Exodus of the Israelites from Egypt: Of course, we have no archaeological evidence from the Exodus, nor would we expect to find anything. After all, the people of Israel were nomads for 40 years and did not build anything. Nothing will ever be found to support this biblical story. It’s interesting that this example is used. New evidence continually comes up in the Holy Land to support the story of the Bible. (For examples of evidence found in 2013, see here.) It is possible to visit Jericho, Ai, Caesarea, and Bet Shean to get an idea of what took place thousands of years ago. Certainly an element of faith is needed to accept the events and people talked about in the Bible, but the historical/archaeological evidence is a huge support. In fact, there is much more to support the Bible than the Book of Mormon, for that matter!
- The Resurrection: Talk about evidence! According to Paul in the fifteenth chapter of 1 Corinthians:
3 For I delivered unto you first of all that which I also received, how that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures; 4 And that he was buried, and that he rose again the third day according to the scriptures: 5 And that he was seen of Cephas, then of the twelve: 6 After that, he was seen of above five hundred brethren at once; of whom the greater part remain unto this present, but some are fallen asleep. 7 After that, he was seen of James; then of all the apostles. 8 And last of all he was seen of me also, as of one born out of due time.
There is good historical evidence for the resurrection. Of course, it still takes faith. But the leap of faith is a jump into the light, not the darkness. (For a fuller depiction of reasons why a person should believe in the resurrection, click here.)
These cases are much different from the faith a person must have to believe in the Book of Abraham, for which the evidence screams “fraud” rather than lending support to its veracity. The Bible is very clear that we must “test everything” (1 Thess. 5:21). Indeed, we are supposed to “test the spirits to see if they are true for many false prophets have gone out into the world” (1 John 4:1). Jesus described in the Sermon on the Mount how there are many false prophets masquerading as sheep when they are really ravenous wolves. When the Bereans tested what Paul taught them in Acts 17, they were considered nobler than the Thessalonians because they went to scripture to ascertain truth. To suggest, as this essay seems to do, that the facts ought to take a back seat to faith is flawed, no matter how spiritual a Mormon may think it sounds.
At this point, I want to bring something up about the language. The Jews in those days spoke Hebrew. There is no evidence a Jew ever wrote using Egyptian hieroglyphics. It would seem that Moses—who authored the Pentateuch—is the more likely candidate to have written in Egyptian since he grew up in the palace of Pharaoh! Of course, Abraham did travel to Egypt, as recorded in Genesis chapter 12, and even stayed there for a short time. But this was not the land of his friends and family. Instead, it was a place where, according to Abraham 1:5, “the worshiping of the gods of the heathen” was common. Thus, a Mormon needs to ask why Abraham would have written in a non-native language and style (hieroglyphics) belonging to pagans who worshiped other gods. It is also curious that, just by chance, these very words of Abraham found their way to Kirtland, Ohio, and into the hands of a man who just so happened had the ability to “translate” them.
Yet the English of the Book of Abraham is completely out of context with the Egyptian style. Dr. Ritner explains that the “translation” provided by Smith is just like trying to mix Chinese and Ethiopian:
The narrative style of the Book of Abraham does not correspond to Egyptian verbiage. It’s not the kind of thing Egyptians would say, they wouldn’t say it in that way, and it certainly would never appear in that way in a context such as this. It couldn’t possibly be more out of place. (The Lost Book of Abraham, 40 minutes in)
We’ll consider more details that are detrimental to the Book of Abraham, and when everything is put together, the chances the Book of Abraham is authentic scripture lands between slim and none.
The Book of Abraham as Scripture
Thousands of years ago, the prophet Nephi learned that one purpose of the Book of Mormon was to “establish the truth” of the Bible. In a similar way, the book of Abraham supports, expands, and clarifies the biblical account of Abraham’s life.
In the biblical account, God covenants with Abraham to “make of thee a great nation.” The book of Abraham provides context for that covenant by showing that Abraham was a seeker of “great knowledge” and a “follower of righteousness” who chose the right path in spite of great hardship. He rejected the wickedness of his father’s household and spurned the idols of the surrounding culture, despite the threat of death.
In the Bible, God’s covenant with Abraham appears to begin during Abraham’s life. According to the book of Abraham, the covenant began before the foundation of the earth and was passed down through Adam, Noah, and other prophets. Abraham thus takes his place in a long line of prophets and patriarchs whose mission is to preserve and extend God’s covenant on earth. The heart of this covenant is the priesthood, through which “the blessings of salvation, even of life eternal” are conveyed.
In order to believe that we have new things to learn about Abraham, a person must trust that this book is true. To get to this point, Joseph Smith must be trusted. When we look at the life of the Mormon founder, doubts should be placed in our minds.
The book of Abraham clarifies several teachings that are obscure in the Bible. Life did not begin at birth, as is commonly believed. Prior to coming to earth, individuals existed as spirits. In a vision, Abraham saw that one of the spirits was “like unto God.” This divine being, Jesus Christ, led other spirits in organizing the earth out of “materials” or preexisting matter, not ex nihilo or out of nothing, as many Christians later came to believe. Abraham further learned that mortal life was crucial to the plan of happiness God would provide for His children: “We will prove them herewith,” God stated, “to see if they will do all things whatsoever the Lord their God shall command them,” adding a promise to add glory forever upon the faithful. Nowhere in the Bible is the purpose and potential of earth life stated so clearly as in the book of Abraham.
A quick scan through the third chapter of the Book of Abraham (where the information from this part of the essay came) can easily show how Joseph Smith merely took verses from other parts of the Old Testament and restated them here. Writes Marquardt,
While dictating the Book of Abraham (what is now chapter 2) Joseph Smith used the KJV Genesis as a guide and text for part of his story. The actual wording in the story suggests the use of Genesis in composing this work. This would indicate that the wording dictated was basically a copying effort of a preestablished text. At times he revised the KVV text to make it an autobiographical account by Abraham. The wording as printed in the KJV was used as part of the text Abraham supposedly wrote by his own hand. It is clear that Joseph Smith had the Bible open to the book of Genesis as he dictated this section of the Book of Abraham. (The Rise of Mormonism: 1816-1844, 402.)
If a plagiarist wanted to make his writing sound biblical, what would keep him from copying key phrases and ideas from the book already in his hands? Consider, for example, the following:
2:11: “And I will bless them that bless thee, and curse them that curse thee.” (Compare Genesis 12:3.)
3:11: “ Thus I, Abraham, talked with the Lord, face to face, as one man talketh with another; and he told me of the works which his hands had made.” Compare with Exodus 33:11 and Numbers 12:8
3:14: “And it was in the night time when the Lord spake these words unto me: I will multiply thee, and thy seed after thee, like unto these; and if thou canst count the number of sands, so shall be the number of thy seeds.” Compare with Genesis 22:17.
3:23: “And God saw these souls that they were good, and he stood in the midst of them, and he said: These I will make my rulers; for he stood among those that were spirits, and he saw that they were good; and he said unto me: Abraham, thou art one of them; thou wast chosen before thou wast born.” Compare with Jeremiah 1:5.
3:27: “And the Lord said: Whom shall I send? And one answered like unto the Son of Man: Here am I, send me. And another answered and said: Here am I, send me. And the Lord said: I will send the first.” Compare with Isaiah 6:8.
But there are other odds parts to the Book of Abraham. For example, in Abraham 1:10, it reads, “Even the thank-offering of a child did the priest of Pharaoh offer upon the altar which stood by the hill called Potiphar’s Hill, at the head of the plain of Olishem.” (Also see verse 20.) Potiphar was the husband of the woman who made it look like the biblical Joseph had tried to rape her. This event took place several generations after Abraham. Perhaps this hill could have been named after another “Potiphar.” But I have no doubt that Joseph got this name from the Bible.
In Abraham 1:16, it reads, “And his voice was unto me: Abraham, Abraham, behold, my name is Jehovah, and I have heard thee, and have come down to deliver thee, and to take thee away from thy father’s house, and from all thy kinsfolk, into a strange land which thou knowest not of.” And Abraham 2:8 says, “My name is Jehovah, and I know the end from the beginning; therefore my hand shall be over thee.” It must be understood that Jehovah is an English word. It is not found in the Bible, as it is neither Greek or Hebrew. Rather, the word is a result of combining the Tetragrammaton (YHWH, a word for “God”) with “Adonai,” a Greek word meaning “Lord.” Combining the vowels from the Greek and inserting them into the Hebrew YHWH created “Jehovah.” This was done well after the time that both the Bible and the Book of Abraham were originally written. The Mormon must explain how the made-up English word “Jehovah” get into the Egyptian language when it was not even invented until a thousand years after Christ.
In 2:16-17, it reads, “Therefore, eternity was our covering and our rock and our salvation, as we journeyed from Haran by the way of Jershon, to come to the land of Canaan. Now I, Abraham, built an altar in the land of Jershon.” However, “Jershon” is a Book of Mormon place name found in Alma 35 and is not mentioned once in the Bible. Neither Abraham nor Moses would have had knowledge of New World names. Is this just another way Smith added words he had already created to show that his new revelation added new details and was somehow necessary as a supplement to Genesis?
Abraham 2:22-24 reads:
And it came to pass when I was come near to enter into Egypt, the Lord said unto me: Behold, Sarai, thy wife, is a very fair woman to look upon; Therefore it shall come to pass, when the Egyptians shall see her, they will say—She is his wife; and they will kill you, but they will save her alive; therefore see that ye do on this wise: Let her say unto the Egyptians, she is thy sister, and thy soul shall live.
According to the Book of Abraham, God told Abraham to lie. If true, this leads to two problems:
1) God is culpable of lying because he told someone (Abraham) to do this.
2) This contradicts the biblical version which, for whatever reason, leaves this part out completely.
The use of “gods”
Then, referring to the creation of the world in Abraham chapter 4 and 5, Abraham moves to the plural use of “gods” (i.e. “the Gods, organized and formed the heavens and the earth,” “the Spirit of the Gods was brooding upon the face of the waters,” “and they (the Gods) comprehended the light, for it was bright,” “and the Gods called the light Day,” and “and the Gods ordered the expanse”), using the plural instead of the singular for the creation of the world. Indeed, the Hebrew “Elohim” is plural, but no reputable translator has ever translated this word as “gods.”
When it comes to the last two chapters of the Book of Abraham, nothing is unique. In fact, Abraham 4 and Genesis 1 are parallel.
The Creation: Comparing Genesis 1 and Abraham 4
Abraham 4:1: “And then the Lord said: Let us go down. And they went down at the beginning, and they, that is the Gods, organized and formed the heavens and the earth.”
Genesis 1:1: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.”
Abraham 4:2: “And the earth, after it was formed, was empty and desolate, because they had not formed anything but the earth; and darkness reigned upon the face of the deep, and the Spirit of the Gods was brooding upon the face of the waters.
Genesis 1:2: “And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.”
Abraham 4:3: “And they (the Gods) said: Let there be light; and there was light.”
Genesis 1:3: “And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.”
Abraham 4:4: “And they (the Gods) comprehended the light, for it was bright; and they divided the light, or caused it to be divided, from the darkness.”
Genesis 1:4: “And God saw the light, that it was good: and God divided the light from the darkness.”
Abraham 4:5: “And the Gods called the light Day, and the darkness they called Night. And it came to pass that from the evening until morning they called night; and from the morning until the evening they called day; and this was the first, or the beginning, of that which they called day and night.”
Genesis 1:5: “And God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And the evening and the morning were the first day.”
Abraham 4:6: “And the Gods also said: Let there be an expanse in the midst of the waters, and it shall divide the waters from the waters.”
Genesis 1:6: “And God said, Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it divide the waters from the waters.”
Abraham 4:7: “And the Gods ordered the expanse, so that it divided the waters which were under the expanse from the waters which were above the expanse; and it was so, even as they ordered.”
Genesis 1:7: “And God made the firmament, and divided the waters which were under the firmament from the waters which were above the firmament: and it was so.”
Abraham 4:8 “And the Gods called the expanse, Heaven. And it came to pass that it was from evening until morning that they called night; and it came to pass that it was from morning until evening that they called day; and this was the second time that they called night and day.”
Genesis 1:8: “And God called the firmament Heaven. And the evening and the morning were the second day.”
Abraham 4:9: “And the Gods ordered, saying: Let the waters under the heaven be gathered together unto one place, and let the earth come up dry; and it was so as they ordered;
Genesis 1:9: “And God said, Let the waters under the heaven be gathered together unto one place, and let the dry land appear: and it was so.”
Abraham 4:10: “And the Gods pronounced the dry land, Earth; and the gathering together of the waters, pronounced they, Great Waters; and the Gods saw that they were obeyed.”
Genesis 1:10: “And God called the dry land Earth; and the gathering together of the waters called he Seas: and God saw that it was good.”
Abraham 4:11: “And the Gods said: Let us prepare the earth to bring forth grass; the herb yielding seed; the fruit tree yielding fruit, after his kind, whose seed in itself yieldeth its own likeness upon the earth; and it was so, even as they ordered.”
Genesis 1:11: “And God said, Let the earth bring forth grass, the herb yielding seed, and the fruit tree yielding fruit after his kind, whose seed is in itself, upon the earth: and it was so.”
Abraham 4:12: “And the Gods organized the earth to bring forth grass from its own seed, and the herb to bring forth herb from its own seed, yielding seed after his kind; and the earth to bring forth the tree from its own seed, yielding fruit, whose seed could only bring forth the same in itself, after his kind; and the Gods saw that they were obeyed.”
Genesis 1:12: “And the earth brought forth grass, and herb yielding seed after his kind, and the tree yielding fruit, whose seed was in itself, after his kind: and God saw that it was good.”
Abraham 4:13: “And it came to pass that they numbered the days; from the evening until the morning they called night; and it came to pass, from the morning until the evening they called day; and it was the third time.”
Genesis 1:13: “And the evening and the morning were the third day.
Abraham 4:14: “And the Gods organized the lights in the expanse of the heaven, and caused them to divide the day from the night; and organized them to be for signs and for seasons, and for days and for years;”
Genesis 1:14: “And God said, Let there be lights in the firmament of the heaven to divide the day from the night; and let them be for signs, and for seasons, and for days, and years.”
Abraham 4:15: “And organized them to be for lights in the expanse of the heaven to give light upon the earth; and it was so.”
Genesis 1:15: “And let them be for lights in the firmament of the heaven to give light upon the earth: and it was so.”
Abraham 4:16: “And the Gods organized the two great lights, the greater light to rule the day, and the lesser light to rule the night; with the lesser light they set the stars also;”
Genesis 1:16: “And God made two great lights; the greater light to rule the day, and the lesser light to rule the night: he made the stars also.”
Abraham 4:17-18: “And the Gods set them in the expanse of the heavens, to give light upon the earth, and to rule over the day and over the night, and to cause to divide the light from the darkness. And the Gods watched those things which they had ordered until they obeyed.”
Genesis 1:17-18: “And God set them in the firmament of the heaven to give light upon the earth, and to rule over the day and over the night, and to divide the light from the darkness: and God saw that it was good.”
Abraham 4:19: “And it came to pass that it was from evening until morning that it was night; and it came to pass that it was from morning until evening that it was day; and it was the fourth time.”
Genesis 1:19: “And the evening and the morning were the fourth day.”
Abraham 4:20: “And the Gods said: Let us prepare the waters to bring forth abundantly the moving creatures that have life; and the fowl, that they may fly above the earth in the open expanse of heaven.”
Genesis 1:20: “And God said, Let the waters bring forth abundantly the moving creature that hath life, and fowl that may fly above the earth in the open firmament of heaven.”
Abraham 4:21: “And the Gods prepared the waters that they might bring forth great whales, and every living creature that moveth, which the waters were to bring forth abundantly after their kind; and every winged fowl after their kind. And the Gods saw that they would be obeyed, and that their plan was good.”
Genesis 1:21: “And God created great whales, and every living creature that moveth, which the waters brought forth abundantly, after their kind, and every winged fowl after his kind: and God saw that it was good.”
Abraham 4:22: “And the Gods said: We will bless them, and cause them to be fruitful and multiply, and fill the waters in the seas or great waters; and cause the fowl to multiply in the earth.”
Genesis 1:22: “And God blessed them, saying, Be fruitful, and multiply, and fill the waters in the seas, and let fowl multiply in the earth.”
Abraham 4:23: “And it came to pass that it was from evening until morning that they called night; and it came to pass that it was from morning until evening that they called day; and it was the fifth time.”
Genesis 1:23: “And the evening and the morning were the fifth day.”
Abraham 4:24: “And the Gods prepared the earth to bring forth the living creature after his kind, cattle and creeping things, and beasts of the earth after their kind; and it was so, as they had said.”
Genesis 1:24: “And God said, Let the earth bring forth the living creature after his kind, cattle, and creeping thing, and beast of the earth after his kind: and it was so.”
Abraham 4:25: “And the Gods organized the earth to bring forth the beasts after their kind, and cattle after their kind, and every thing that creepeth upon the earth after its kind; and the Gods saw they would obey.”
Genesis 1:25: “And God made the beast of the earth after his kind, and cattle after their kind, and every thing that creepeth upon the earth after his kind: and God saw that it was good.”
Abraham 4:26-27: “And the Gods took counsel among themselves and said: Let us go down and form man in our image, after our likeness; and we will give them dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth. So the Gods went down to organize man in their own image, in the image of the Gods to form they him, male and female to form they them.”
Genesis 1:26-27: “And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth. So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them.”
Abraham 4:28: “And the Gods said: We will bless them. And the Gods said: We will cause them to be fruitful and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it, and to have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.”
Genesis 1:28: “And God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.”
Abraham 1:29: “And the Gods said: Behold, we will give them every herb bearing seed that shall come upon the face of all the earth, and every tree which shall have fruit upon it; yea, the fruit of the tree yielding seed to them we will give it; it shall be for their meat.”
Genesis 1:29: “And God said, Behold, I have given you every herb bearing seed, which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree, in the which is the fruit of a tree yielding seed; to you it shall be for meat.”
Abraham 4:30: “And to every beast of the earth, and to every fowl of the air, and to every thing that creepeth upon the earth, behold, we will give them life, and also we will give to them every green herb for meat, and all these things shall be thus organized.”
Genesis 1:30: “And to every beast of the earth, and to every fowl of the air, and to every thing that creepeth upon the earth, wherein there is life, I have given every green herb for meat: and it was so.”
Abraham 4:31: “And the Gods said: We will do everything that we have said, and organize them; and behold, they shall be very obedient. And it came to pass that it was from evening until morning they called night; and it came to pass that it was from morning until evening that they called day; and they numbered the sixth time.”
Genesis 1:31: “And God saw every thing that he had made, and, behold, it was very good. And the evening and the morning were the sixth day.”
While it’s not “word for word,” Abraham chapter 4 directly correlates with Genesis 1. A coincidence? Obviously not. Smith was intent on changing the singular God with the plural “Gods.” And at the end of each of the days, he used the same formula. Yet Joseph Smith had a chance to change Genesis 1 in his Joseph Smith Translation of the Bible. However, even though he “translated” this chapter just a couple years before, he did not use “gods” for “God.” In a single stroke, Smith uses the Book of Abraham to contradict both the Bible and, for that matter, the Book of Mormon (which Smith called “the most correct book on earth”).
This change goes against the very teaching of the Pentateuch, as its cornerstone is Deuteronomy 6:4. Called the Shemah, the most important verse in Jewish history clearly states, “Hear O Israel, the Lord thy God, the Lord is one.” Jesus quoted this in Mark 12:29. Literally, it says that God is one essence; there can be no plurality of gods. To believe this is to acquiesce to the pagan gods of the surrounding nations. Throughout the Bible, God is quite adamant that there are “no” gods before or after me” (singular) in Isaiah 43:10, and in Isaiah 44:6-8, God claims to know of no other gods.
Consider Genesis 1:26-27 in relation to Abraham 4:26-27. Bill McKeever explains
how a Mormon must demonstrate that the preincarnate Jehovah had a body of flesh and bones at the time the conversation in Genesis 1:26, 27 took place. Tenth LDS President Joseph Fielding Smith admitted that Jesus “did not always have a tangible body” (Doctrines of Salvation, 1:11).
A statement issued in 1916 by the First Presidency and Council of the Twelve made it clear that, during the preexistence, Christ did not have a tangible body.
“In all His dealings with the human family Jesus the Son has represented and yet represents Elohim His Father in power and authority. This is true of Christ in His preexistent, antemortal, or unembodied state, in the which He was known as Jehovah.” (Messages of the First Presidency 5:31, 32. Also cited in the Encyclopedia of Mormonism 4:720, emphasis mine.)
Speaking in conference in April 1921, Charles W. Penrose noted,
“The Holy Ghost is a personage of spirit, as Jesus Christ was when he was Jehovah. He was Jehovah from the beginning of the world, according to the history we have in the Old Testament scriptures. He was a personage of spirit, and he came here to the earth that he might be exactly like his brethren and like his Father, and have a body made out of the lower elements of the universe.” (Conference Report, p.12, emphasis mine).
In making a similar distinction between the personages of the LDS godhead, Mormon Apostle Bruce McConkie wrote,
“The Holy Ghost has not a body of flesh and bones,’ however, ‘but is a personage of Spirit.’ (D&C 130:22.) He is thus a spirit man, a spirit person, a spirit entity. He lives and moves and has his being separate and apart from his fellow Gods. His spirit body is in all respects comparable to the kind of a body that the Lord Jehovah possessed before that beloved and chosen one made flesh his tabernacle by the process of mortal birth.” (A New Witness for the Articles of Faith, pp.253, 254, emphasis mine.)
Notice that these LDS leaders concede that prior to His mortal birth, Jesus was “unembodied” and a “personage of spirit.” This is the key to discovering the error so many Mormons make when it comes to the Genesis passages. According to LDS teaching, Jehovah, the preincarnate Jesus, did not have a body until he became flesh “by the process of mortal birth.” That being so, it is wrong for Mormons to assume that the words “image” and “likeness” refer to flesh and bones since the Mormon “Jehovah” (and Mormon “Holy Ghost”) had no such image or likeness when the conversation in Genesis 1:26 took place.
The Creation: Comparing Genesis 2 with Abraham 5
In the final chapter of the Book of Abraham, an even closer copying of Genesis is made. Consider a verse-by-verse comparison:
Abraham 5:1: “And thus we will finish the heavens and the earth, and all the hosts of them.”
Genesis 2:1: “Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all the host of them.”
Abraham 5:2: “And the Gods said among themselves: On the seventh time we will end our work, which we have counseled; and we will rest on the seventh time from all our work which we have counseled.”
Genesis 2:2: “And on the seventh day God ended his work which he had made; and he rested on the seventh day from all his work which he had made.”
Abraham 5:3: “And the Gods concluded upon the seventh time, because that on the seventh time they would rest from all their works which they (the Gods) counseled among themselves to form; and sanctified it. And thus were their decisions at the time that they counseled among themselves to form the heavens and the earth.”
Genesis 2:3: “And God blessed the seventh day, and sanctified it: because that in it he had rested from all his work which God created and made.”
Abraham 5:4 And the Gods came down and formed these the generations of the heavens and of the earth, when they were formed in the day that the Gods formed the earth and the heavens,
Genesis 2:4: “These are the generations of the heavens and of the earth when they were created, in the day that the Lord God made the earth and the heavens,”
Abraham 5:5: “According to all that which they had said concerning every plant of the field before it was in the earth, and every herb of the field before it grew; for the Gods had not caused it to rain upon the earth when they counseled to do them, and had not formed a man to till the ground.”
Genesis 2:5: “And every plant of the field before it was in the earth, and every herb of the field before it grew: for the Lord God had not caused it to rain upon the earth, and there was not a man to till the ground.”
Abraham 5:6: “But there went up a mist from the earth, and watered the whole face of the ground.”
Genesis 2:6: “But there went up a mist from the earth, and watered the whole face of the ground.”
Abraham 5:7: “And the Gods formed man from the dust of the ground, and took his spirit (that is, the man’s spirit), and put it into him; and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and man became a living soul.”
Genesis 2:7: “And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.”
Abraham 5:8: “And the Gods planted a garden, eastward in Eden, and there they put the man, whose spirit they had put into the body which they had formed.”
Genesis 2:8: “And the Lord God planted a garden eastward in Eden; and there he put the man whom he had formed.”
Abraham 5:8: “And the Gods planted a garden, eastward in Eden, and there they put the man, whose spirit they had put into the body which they had formed.
Genesis 2:8: “And the Lord God planted a garden eastward in Eden; and there he put the man whom he had formed.”
Abraham 5:9: “And out of the ground made the Gods to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food; the tree of life, also, in the midst of the garden, and the tree of knowledge of good and evil.”
Genesis 2:9: “And out of the ground made the Lord God to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight, and good for food; the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of knowledge of good and evil.”
Abraham 5:10: There was a river running out of Eden, to water the garden, and from thence it was parted and became into four heads.
Genesis 2:10: “And a river went out of Eden to water the garden; and from thence it was parted, and became into four heads.”
Abraham 5:11: “And the Gods took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden, to dress it and to keep it.”
Genesis 2:15: “And the Lord God took the man, and put him into the garden of Eden to dress it and to keep it.”
Abraham 5:12-13: “And the Gods commanded the man, saying: Of every tree of the garden thou mayest freely eat, But of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it; for in the time that thou eatest thereof, thou shalt surely die. Now I, Abraham, saw that it was after the Lord’s time, which was after the time of Kolob; for as yet the Gods had not appointed unto Adam his reckoning.”
Genesis 2:16-17: “And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, Of every tree of the garden thou mayest freely eat: But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die.”
Abraham 5:14: “And the Gods said: Let us make an help meet for the man, for it is not good that the man should be alone, therefore we will form an help meet for him.”
Genesis 2:18: “And the Lord God said, It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him an help meet for him.”
Abraham 5:15: “And the Gods caused a deep sleep to fall upon Adam; and he slept, and they took one of his ribs, and closed up the flesh in the stead thereof;”
Genesis 2:21: “And the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon Adam, and he slept: and he took one of his ribs, and closed up the flesh instead thereof;”
Abraham 5:16: “And of the rib which the Gods had taken from man, formed they a woman, and brought her unto the man.”
Genesis 2:22: “And the rib, which the Lord God had taken from man, made he a woman, and brought her unto the man.”
Abraham 5:17-18: “And Adam said: This was bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh; now she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of man; Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife, and they shall be one flesh.
Genesis 2:23-24: “And Adam said, This is now bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh: she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man. Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife: and they shall be one flesh.”
Abraham 5:19: “And they were both naked, the man and his wife, and were not ashamed.”
Genesis 2:25: “And they were both naked, the man and his wife, and were not ashamed.”
Abraham 5:20: “And out of the ground the Gods formed every beast of the field, and every fowl of the air, and brought them unto Adam to see what he would call them; and whatsoever Adam called every living creature, that should be the name thereof.”
Genesis 2:19: “And out of the ground the Lord God formed every beast of the field, and every fowl of the air; and brought them unto Adam to see what he would call them: and whatsoever Adam called every living creature, that was the name thereof.”
Abraham 5:21: “And Adam gave names to all cattle, to the fowl of the air, to every beast of the field; and for Adam, there was found an helpmeet for him.”
Genesis 2:20: “And Adam gave names to all cattle, and to the fowl of the air, and to every beast of the field; but for Adam there was not found an help meet for him.”
Considering the parallels between Abraham chapters 3 and 4 and Genesis 1 and 2, it is obvious that Joseph Smith had his King James Version of the Bible open when making his “translation” of the Book of Abraham. The structure is clearly the same, while the main change involves changing the singular “God” into a plurality of gods.
Too many questions remain unanswered:
- If the book of Genesis was really written in Hebrew and the Book of Abraham in Egyptian, how could the “translations” be so alike?
- Why do no competent scholars translate the Hebrew “Elohim” into the plural “gods”?
- If the entire text became corrupted, when did it become corrupted? (Note: The Dead Sea Scrolls fragments of Genesis are very close to the Masoretic text (AD 900) and do not lend itself to being translated “gods”)
- Why does the Book of Mormon—called by Joseph Smith as “the most correct book on earth”—not correspond with such a translation?
Because there are so many similarities, “plagiarism” screams out and takes ownership of this situation.
Origin of the Book of Abraham
The powerful truths found in the book of Abraham emerged from a set of unique historical events. In the summer of 1835, an entrepreneur named Michael Chandler arrived at Church headquarters in Kirtland, Ohio, with four mummies and multiple scrolls of papyrus. Chandler found a ready audience. Due partly to the exploits of the French emperor Napoleon, the antiquities unearthed in the catacombs of Egypt had created a fascination across the Western world. Chandler capitalized on this interest by touring with ancient Egyptian artifacts and charging visitors a fee to see them.
These artifacts had been uncovered by Antonio Lebolo, a former cavalryman in the Italian army. Lebolo, who oversaw some of the excavations for the consul general of France, pulled 11 mummies from a tomb not far from the ancient city of Thebes. Lebolo shipped the artifacts to Italy, and after his death, they ended up in New York. At some point the mummies and scrolls came into Chandler’s possession.
By the time the collection arrived in Kirtland, all but four mummies and several papyrus scrolls had already been sold. A group of Latter-day Saints in Kirtland purchased the remaining artifacts for the Church. After Joseph Smith examined the papyri and commenced “the translation of some of the characters or hieroglyphics,” his history recounts, “much to our joy [we] found that one of the rolls contained the writings of Abraham.”
Translation and the Book of Abraham
Joseph Smith worked on the translation of the book of Abraham during the summer and fall of 1835, by which time he completed at least the first chapter and part of the second chapter. His journal next speaks of translating the papyri in the spring of 1842, after the Saints had relocated to Nauvoo, Illinois. All five chapters of the book of Abraham, along with three illustrations (now known as facsimiles 1, 2, and 3), were published in the Times and Seasons, the Church’s newspaper in Nauvoo, between March and May 1842.
The book of Abraham was the last of Joseph Smith’s translation efforts. In these inspired translations, Joseph Smith did not claim to know the ancient languages of the records he was translating. Much like the Book of Mormon, Joseph’s translation of the book of Abraham was recorded in the language of the King James Bible. This was the idiom of scripture familiar to early Latter-day Saints, and its use was consistent with the Lord’s pattern of revealing His truths “after the manner of their [His servants’] language, that they might come to understanding.”
A person could make a translation similar to the King James Version of the Bible, but this wouldn’t mean that the words would be (for the most part) word for word from the translation originally done in 1611. The point made in the following manual ought to be considered, as the LDS teacher is being instructed how to teach the difficulty of “translating” from one language into another:
Write a simple sentence on the board and ask for a volunteer to translate it into any foreign language. Then ask for a volunteer to translate a more difficult sentence (such as Abraham 1:2). Discuss some of the challenges involved in translating writings from one language to another. Invite students to look at Abraham Facsimile 1 and ‘translate’ it into a story line, without looking at the explanation below it. (The Pearl of Great Price Teacher Manual Religion 327, p. 35).
This is exactly right. So here we have two resources: the Bible (Genesis) and the Pearl of Great Price (the Book of Abraham). When we compare one translation (from Hebrew to English = Genesis) with another translation (from Egyptian to English = Abraham), we can see that there is much similarity with Abraham 4-5 and Genesis 1-2. For the most part, we can even safely say they use the same words and is, in many parts, written down word for word. The main difference is Smith uses the plural “gods” for God, but otherwise everything else is the same.
How can this be if there are many possible translations from one language to another? Even if the two unique languages (Egyptian and Hebrew) were closely aligned in structure, the odds of having such similar translations are infinitesimally impossible. Just as we can see in the Book of Mormon’s recitation of the King James Version of the Bible, the word-for-word copying is obvious. There is no coincidence if plagiarism is involved.
Joseph’s translations took a variety of forms. Some of his translations, like that of the Book of Mormon, utilized ancient documents in his possession. Other times, his translations were not based on any known physical records. Joseph’s translation of portions of the Bible, for example, included restoration of original text, harmonization of contradictions within the Bible itself, and inspired commentary.
Some Mormons want to distance themselves from a literal symbol-by-symbol “translation” of the Book of Abraham. For example, in 1992, two LDS scholars wrote,
“Speculation nevertheless persisted as to the process Joseph may have used in translating the book, including the possibility that even if the papyri were not contemporary with Abraham they contained material that, under inspiration, turned Joseph’s mind back to ancient Egypt and opened it to direct revelation on the experiences of Abraham. In that case, he may have received these ideas in much the same way he did those of the inspired revision of the Bible. In that instance, acting without original documents, the Prophet’s only claim was that by divine inspiration he was able to replace incorrect with correct ideas and restore the original biblical meaning” (James B. Allen and Glen M. Leonard, The Story of the Latter-day Saints, 1992, p. 77).
Hold on a second. The preface to the Book of Abraham reads,
A translation of some ancient records, that have fallen into our hands—The writings of Abraham while he was in Egypt, called the Book of Abraham, written by his own hand, upon papyrus. See History of the Church 2:235, 236, 348-35.
Charles Larson makes a good point when he says,
All of these records show that he [Smith] intended the text of the Book of Abraham to be regarded as nothing less than a direct, literal translation, which he had taken from Abraham’s own papyrus record. . . .while Joseph Smith presented himself as able to translate and understand ancient languages, and specifically, while he claimed to have produced the Book of Abraham by translating the ancient Egyptian text from one of his papyrus scrolls, we now know that the Joseph Smith papyri are in fact pagan Egyptian documents unrelated to the biblical Abraham. Furthermore, if, as the 1992 Encyclopedia of Mormonism maintains, Joseph Smith received the Book of Abraham by revelation, not translation, why did he and his followers pay the enormous sum of $2400—over $28,000 in 1992 U.S. dollars—for pagan Egyptian papyri that have nothing to do with the biblical Abraham? (By His Own Hand Upon Papyrus, 95)
When the word “translation” is used, it infers that it came directly from the original source. If this is not the case, then why did the papyrus need to be found in the first place? If Smith could create the proper translation without the actual papyrus (or, for that matter, the gold plates for the Book of Mormon), it seems as if the actual sources just don’t matter.
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.” This “grammar,” as it was called, consisted of columns of hieroglyphic characters followed by English translations recorded in a large notebook by Joseph’s scribe, William W. Phelps. Another manuscript, written by Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery, has Egyptian characters followed by explanations.
The relationship of these documents to the book of Abraham is not fully understood. Neither the rules nor the translations in the grammar book correspond to those recognized by Egyptologists today. Whatever the role of the grammar book, 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.”
Notice what is said: “Neither the rules nor the translations in the grammar book correspond to those recognized by Egyptologists today.” Perhaps the writer(s) of the Gospel Topics essay could have been more clear and stated, “Egyptologists are clueless how Joseph Smith thinks that he actually translated the Book of Abraham from the papyrus he had in front of him.” With a wave of the hand, the writer continues, “Whatever the role of the grammar book…” In essence, the grammar book doesn’t play any role because it was filled with gibberish that nobody in the 1830s could have understood. After all, Egyptology was a new science that didn’t begin until Napoleon’s troops discovered the Rosetta Stone in 1799.
Dr. Ritner explains what he calls the “smoking gun” courtesy of Jerald and Sandra Tanner of the Utah Lighthouse Ministry:
Again in contrast to the new LDS statement, it is not true that “no eyewitness account of the translation survives.” Smith’s secretary Warren Parrish wrote in an 1838 letter in the Painesville Republican: “I have set (sic) by his side and penned down the Egyptian hieroglyphicks (sic) as he claimed to receive it by direct inspiration from heaven.” Smith’s “divine inspiration” was not, however, divorced from a direct attempt to translate the characters of the Egyptian papyrus, as is clear from surviving manuscript pages of the evolving text of the Book of Abraham. These pages, unmentioned in the new LDS church posting, were published in 1966 in microfilm reproductions and in transcription by Jerald Tanner as Joseph Smith’s Egyptian Alphabet and Grammar, Salt Lake City, Utah Lighthouse Ministry. These microfilm pages are the “smoking gun” evidence that resolves the history of the Book of Abraham translation process.
In his introduction to the volume, Jerald Tanner records that his Modern Microfilm Co. was contacted “in the early part of 1965” by a student at the Brigham Young University who had a typed copy of the “Egyptian Alphabet” hand copies, and that “later in the year another man loaned us a microfilm of the original document.” The microfilm reproductions found in the Tanner volume were printed from masters produced “in the early part of 1966,” the same year that the Tanner volume was published. The dates of 1965-1966 are significant, because the microfilm edition contains not only the “Egyptian Alphabet,” but the evolving manuscript pages for the future Book of Abraham as well. These pages contain copies of specific Egyptian text from the “Breathing Permit of Hôr,” column 2. That section of the papyrus was not reproduced in the Book of Abraham or any other publication until the rediscovery of the Smith papyri in New York in 1967 and the publication of sepia photographs in The Improvement Era in January and February of 1968. The copies made in 1965 and 1966, and the 1966 publication by Tanner, cannot then be forgeries since no forger could have had the unknown papyrus as a model to copy. The equation of the Book of Abraham and the “Breathing Permit of Hôr” is thus undeniable, and the source of Smith’s nineteenth century composition is settled. Period.
The Tanner volume that first published these manuscripts is cumbersome to use as it lacks running pagination, but relevant manuscript pages are lettered J through M, with a second series labeled out of order S, R, Q, N, P and O. Exactly like the “Alphabet and Grammar,” the pages include copies of Egyptian script on the left corresponding to lengthy English on the right. But in these texts, the English is the text of the Book of Abraham as it was being modified and would be published, with obvious deletions and revisions in the handwritten English text. Also unlike the “Alphabet and Grammar” hand copies, the Egyptian script on most of these sheets is immediately clear and readily translated by modern Egyptologists. Without question, the translation efforts by Smith and his “scribes” were based directly on Smith’s Egyptian papyri.
After the Latter-day Saints left Nauvoo, the Egyptian artifacts remained behind. Joseph Smith’s family sold the papyri and the mummies in 1856. The papyri were divided up and sold to various parties; historians believe that most were destroyed in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. Ten papyrus fragments once in Joseph Smith’s possession ended up in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. In 1967, the museum transferred these fragments to the Church, which subsequently published them in the Church’s magazine, the Improvement Era.
The discovery of the papyrus fragments renewed debate about Joseph Smith’s translation. The fragments included one vignette, or illustration, that appears in the book of Abraham as facsimile 1. Long before the fragments were published by the Church, some Egyptologists had said that Joseph Smith’s explanations of the various elements of these facsimiles did not match their own interpretations of these drawings. Joseph Smith had published the facsimiles as freestanding drawings, cut off from the hieroglyphs or hieratic characters that originally surrounded the vignettes. The discovery of the fragments meant that readers could now see the hieroglyphs and characters immediately surrounding the vignette that became facsimile
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, though there is not unanimity, even among non-Mormon scholars, about the proper interpretation of the vignettes on these fragments. Scholars have identified the papyrus fragments as parts of standard funerary texts that were deposited with mummified bodies. These fragments date to between the third century B.C.E. and the first century C.E., long after Abraham lived.
Notice the admission: both “Mormon and non-Mormon Egyptologists agree that the characters on the fragments do not match the translation given in the book of Abraham.” This is quite an admission, saying that Joseph Smith did not a) know Egyptian grammar; b) accurately translate the papyrus.
Of course, the fragments do not have to be as old as Abraham for the book of Abraham and its illustrations to be authentic. Ancient records are often transmitted as copies or as copies of copies. The record of Abraham could have been edited or redacted by later writers much as the Book of Mormon prophet-historians Mormon and Moroni revised the writings of earlier peoples. Moreover, documents initially composed for one context can be repackaged for another context or purpose. Illustrations once connected with Abraham could have either drifted or been dislodged from their original context and reinterpreted hundreds of years later in terms of burial practices in a later period of Egyptian history. The opposite could also be true: illustrations with no clear connection to Abraham anciently could, by revelation, shed light on the life and teachings of this prophetic figure.
Some have assumed that the hieroglyphs adjacent to and surrounding facsimile 1 must be a source for the text of the book of Abraham. But this claim rests on the assumption that a vignette and its adjacent text must be associated in meaning. In fact, it was not uncommon for ancient Egyptian vignettes to be placed some distance from their associated commentary.
Neither the Lord nor Joseph Smith explained the process of translation of the book of Abraham, but some insight can be gained from the Lord’s instructions to Joseph regarding translation. In April 1829, Joseph received a revelation for Oliver Cowdery that taught that both intellectual work and revelation were essential to translating sacred records. It was necessary to “study it out in your mind” and then seek spiritual confirmation. Records indicate that Joseph and others studied the papyri and that close observers also believed that the translation came by revelation. As John Whitmer observed, “Joseph the Seer saw these Record[s] and by the revelation of Jesus Christ could translate these records.”
Once more, a person’s blind faith is requested. Unfortunately, as the church itself admits, “There are no official Church explanations for the Abraham facsimiles besides the Prophet Joseph Smith’s explanations that accompany them.” (The Pearl of Great Price Teacher Manual: Religion 327, 35.) Knowing if it is a book really written by Abraham requires great faith, as a church history manual says that, “like the Book of Mormon, the book of Abraham is its own evidence that it came about through the gift and power of God.” (Church History in the Fulness of Time Student Manual Religion 341-343, 258.)
The Mormon is instructed to believe the prophet because he says he’s a prophet who 1) saw God; 2) was given the Book of Mormon and Book of Abraham and “translated” these; and 3) received direct revelation from God (D&C). The Bible never requires that we have blind faith. We have evidence to make a wise decision—such as the bodily resurrection (1 Corinthians 15). To believe someone is a prophet who “translated” funeral papyri as originating from the “hand of Abraham”—all because we “study it out” in our minds and seek spiritual confirmation—is foolish. Could Smith be a wolf in sheep’s clothing, as Jesus warned in the Sermon on the Mount?
It is likely futile to assess Joseph’s ability to translate papyri when we now have only a fraction of the papyri he had in his possession. 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 same claim has been made by LDS apologists, an apparent attempt to somehow get the readers to think that, maybe somehow, the crux of the manuscripts are somewhere around.
Thus, Mormons wonder if there could have been more that wasn’t found. Was the papyri found in 1967 in a New York museum the same papyri that Smith had in his possession? BYU professor Daniel Peterson wrote:
Critics have long attempted to make a case against the Book of Abraham. They argue that some ancient texts do not support the book. They point to the fragments of the Joseph Smith papyri that we now possess and claim that since the contents of these papyri bear little obvious relationship to the book of Abraham, the book is a fraud; but Hugh Nibley has made an exhaustive study of these claims and has shown that the papyri we now have were probably not the ones from which Joseph Smith translated the book of Abraham. (Ensign, January 1994): 20.)
Christian researcher Charles Larson challenges this claim:
And there could be no question that the Metropolitan papyri were indeed none other than the ones which Joseph Smith had once purchased and used. The reverse sides of the paper to which they were glued contained such things as architectural drawings of a temple and maps of the Kirtland, Ohio area. (Charles M. Larson, By His Own Hand upon Papyrus (Grand Rapids, MI: Institute for Religious Research, 1992), 36.
Could there have been more papyri? In his book Shaken Faith Syndrome, Michael R. Ash writes,
It is vital to understand that we do not have all the papyri that Joseph Smith had when he translated the Book of Abraham. Some of the papyri were burned in the Chicago fire and it’s possible that other fragments were lost or destroyed elsewhere. Yale-trained Eypgtologist, Dr. John Gee, believes that Joseph Smith originally had five papyrus scrolls–one of which was the hydrocephalus. Of these five scrolls, only eleven fragments of two scrolls are extant. (p. 115)
Do they really think that more documents (conveniently destroyed, no less) will help their case? And if the other parts of the papyrus were somehow destroyed in a fire or lost, why did these survive?
Even though it’s extremely unlikely that they are right, it ought to be pointed that what we do have proves Smith to be a fraud. Consider Abraham 1:12, which reads,
And it came to pass that the priests laid violence upon me, that they might slay me also, as they did those virgins upon this altar; and that you may have a knowledge of this altar, I will refer you to the representation at the commencement of this record.
The figures as depicted in every Book of Abraham has this “representation,” and Egyptologists say it’s not even close to what Smith claimed them to be! Referring to this passage from the LDS scripture, Ritner writes,
In addition, Facsimile 1 is specifically referenced in the text of the Book of Abraham (1:12): “that you may have a knowledge of this altar, I will refer you to the representation at the commencement of this record.” That initial representation is Fig. 4 of Facsimile 1: “The altar for sacrifice by the idolatrous priests, standing before the gods of Elkenah, Libnah, Mahmackrah, Korash, and the Pharaoh.” Further links appear in Abraham 1:13-14, which describe the bedstead “altar” and foreign gods (actually canopic jars) in Facsimile 1, Figs. 5-9. From these clear internal references, the LDS church is wrong to question whether the vignette/ facsimile “and its adjacent text must be associated in meaning.” It is simply unacceptable to argue, as the new LDS posting does, that Facsimile 1 may not be relevant since “it was not uncommon for ancient Egyptian vignettes to be placed some distance from their associated commentary.” The Abraham text states clearly that the representation was not at some distance, but “at the commencement of this record.” There is only one such representation included by Smith “at the commencement” of the Book of Abraham. If he actually knew what he was doing, surely he would have copied the correct illustration (which is keyed perfectly — and repeatedly— to the text).
As far as John Gee, Dr. Ritner was his teacher, and he’s not impressed with Gee’s analysis. Dr. Ritner wrote,
With regard to the articles by my former student John Gee, I am constrained to note that unlike the interaction between Baer and Nibley, and the practice of all my other Egyptology students, Gee never chose to share drafts of his publications with me to elicit scholarly criticism, so that I have encountered these only recently. It must be understood that in these apologetic writings, Gee’s opinions do not necessarily reflect my own, nor the standards of Egyptological proof that I required at Yale or Chicago.
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.
It is obvious why the Mormon Church needs to maintain the Book of Abraham as authentic. As B. H. Roberts noted:
. . . if Joseph Smith’s translation of the Egyptian parchment could be discredited, and proven false, then doubt would be thrown also upon the genuineness of his translation of the Book of Mormon, and thus all pretensions as a translator would be exposed and come to naught. (B. H. Roberts, comp., Comprehensive History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 2:138.)
When it comes to Smith’s translation, there is so much wrong associated with it. Ritner 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.
In an article he states:
The text is a formal document or “permit” created by Isis and copied by Thoth to assure that the deified Hor regains the ability to breathe and function after death, with full mobility, access to offerings, and all other privileges of the immortal gods. The implications, basic symbolism, and intent of the text are certain.
There is no way that Smith was able to “translate” the Book of Abraham. Everything in it was made up by him. Dr. Ritner concludes:
With the Book of Abraham now confirmed as a perhaps well-meaning, but erroneous invention by Joseph Smith, the LDS church may well devote some reflection to the status of the text. The former Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, since 2001 renamed the Community of Christ, avoids this issue by treating the Book of Abraham as speculative writing by Smith, not as a document of historical truth. In this decision they are clearly correct. Despite its inauthenticity as a genuine historical narrative, the Book of Abraham remains a valuable witness to early American religious history and to the recourse to ancient texts as sources of modern religious faith and speculation. The book still has its uses and significance, but not for the ancient world of Egypt and Abraham.
Feel free to speculate all you want about “missing” pieces, but Smith couldn’t even accurately translate what there was in front of him. Shouldn’t this be a concern for every Latter-day Saint?
The Book of Abraham and the Ancient World
A careful study of the book of Abraham provides a better measure of the book’s merits than any hypothesis that treats the text as a conventional translation. 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.
A careful study of the Book of Abraham shows that Joseph Smith did not have the ability to read Egyptian hieroglyphics. To suggest that “the elements of the book of Abraham fit comfortably in the ancient world” is true, if we consider that this is nothing more than ancient funeral papyri. But to say Smith knew how to translate this is just not true at all. It is very similar to his “translation” of the Book of Mormon, as pointed out by David Persuitte:
Like The Book of Mormon, The Book of Abraham was the product of an eclectic mind and reflects the beliefs and literature of Joseph’s own time. Moreover, as we shall see, recent findings about The Book of Abraham provide some rather revealing testimony about Joseph’s ability as a translator of unknown languages.
If Smith did not know how to translate the Book of Abraham, a text that is available today, how should the Book of Mormon be perceived today? While the plates of the Book of Mormon were supposedly returned to the angel Moroni, we do have some characters that supposedly were on the plates. A paper with these characters was delivered to Dr. Anthon Lund by Martin Harris. According to Persuitte,
Competent philologist have examined copies of the scrap of paper containing the characters, and they agree that it is not an Egyptian inscription and that it is not written in any other known script. . . . Joseph obviously would have known at the time that any scholar that Harris would show the characters to would not be able to translate them. (Joseph Smith and the Origins of the Book of Mormon, p. 73.)
As Marquardt points out,
This places the question of how reliable his work on the Book of Mormon would be. The Book of Mormon is represented to have been written by the hand of a man named Mormon in a form of Egyptian. Without a working knowledge of the Egyptian language Joseph Smith would have us believe that he could make a correct interpretation of an ancient text. Whatever would come from his mouth as he dictated the Book of Mormon, Egyptian Alphabet, and Book of Abraham was considered inspired. All indications are that since Smith did not really translate from an ancient language in his work on the Book of Abraham he could not be trusted in his earlier dictation, when he reportedly had a record written in the same basic language. The material he produced indicates that he had a vivid and creative imagination as the dictated text to his religious documents shows. (The Rise of Mormonism: 1816-1844, 408)
The book of Abraham speaks disapprovingly of human sacrifice offered on an altar in Chaldea. Some victims were placed on the altar as sacrifices because they rejected the idols worshipped by their leaders. Recent scholarship has found instances of such punishment dating to Abraham’s time. People who challenged the standing religious order, either in Egypt or in the regions over which it had influence (such as Canaan), could and did suffer execution for their offenses. The conflict over the religion of Pharaoh, as described in Abraham 1:11–12, is an example of punishment now known to have been meted out during the Abrahamic era.
Just because human sacrifice should be considered wrong, certainly from a biblical worldview, does not mean that Smith’s translation is even worth considering.
The book of Abraham contains other details that are consistent with modern discoveries about the ancient world. The book speaks of “the plain of Olishem,” a name not mentioned in the Bible. An ancient inscription, not discovered and translated until the 20th century, mentions a town called “Ulisum,” located in northwestern Syria. Further, Abraham 3:22–23 is written in a poetic structure more characteristic of Near Eastern languages than early American writing style.
Abraham 3:22-23 has nothing to do with the Near East. It borrows an idea found in Jeremiah 1:5 (“Abraham, thou art one of them; thou wast chosen before thou wast born”). Contrary to the Bible and the Book of Mormon, the Book of Abraham advocates an ex materia creation (out of already exiting materials).
Joseph Smith’s explanations of the facsimiles of the book of Abraham contain additional earmarks of the ancient world. Facsimile 1 and Abraham 1:17 mention the idolatrous god Elkenah.
“Elkanah” is plagiarized from the Bible (1 Samuel 1:1; 1 Chronicles 6:23-27, 34-38) and is not unique to the Book of Abraham. Another example of plagiarism from the pen of Joseph Smith.
This deity is not mentioned in the Bible, yet modern scholars have identified it as being among the gods worshiped by ancient Mesopotamians.
Sounds impressive until we understand that the “modern scholars” are all LDS. The footnote to this sentence reads:
Kevin L. Barney, “On Elkenah as Canaanite El,” Journal of the Book of Mormon and Other Restoration Scripture 19, no. 1 (2010): 22–35, available at maxwellinstitute.byu.edu; 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), 75.
Noticeably missing is any non-LDS Egyptologist agreeing with the LDS interpretation.
Joseph Smith represented the four figures in figure 6 of facsimile 2 as “this earth in its four quarters.” A similar interpretation has been argued by scholars who study identical figures in other ancient Egyptian texts. Facsimile 1 contains a crocodile deity swimming in what Joseph Smith called “the firmament over our heads.” This interpretation makes sense in light of scholarship that identifies Egyptian conceptions of heaven with “a heavenly ocean.”
The sources, again, are all LDS. No Egyptologist supports such a view.
The book of Abraham is consistent with various details found in nonbiblical stories about Abraham that circulated in the ancient world around the time the papyri were likely created. In the book of Abraham, God teaches Abraham about the sun, the moon, and the stars. “I show these things unto thee before ye go into Egypt,” the Lord says, “that ye may declare all these words.” Ancient texts repeatedly refer to Abraham instructing the Egyptians in knowledge of the heavens. For example, Eupolemus, who lived under Egyptian rule in the second century B.C.E., wrote that Abraham taught astronomy and other sciences to the Egyptian priests. A third-century papyrus from an Egyptian temple library connects Abraham with an illustration similar to facsimile 1 in the book of Abraham. A later Egyptian text, discovered in the 20th century, tells how the Pharaoh tried to sacrifice Abraham, only to be foiled when Abraham was delivered by an angel. Later, according to this text, Abraham taught members of the Pharaoh’s court through astronomy. All these details are found in the book of Abraham.
Other details in the book of Abraham are found in ancient traditions located across the Near East. These include Terah, Abraham’s father, being an idolator; a famine striking Abraham’s homeland; Abraham’s familiarity with Egyptian idols; and Abraham’s being younger than 75 years old when he left Haran, as the biblical account states. Some of these extrabiblical elements were available in apocryphal books or biblical commentaries in Joseph Smith’s lifetime, but others were confined to nonbiblical traditions inaccessible or unknown to 19th-century Americans.
Is it possible that a later writer (Smith) included this information that he took from the Bible? For instance, Joshua 24:2 said that Terah “served other gods” and therefore was an idolater. Smith was able to copy this into his “translation.” In fact, the “translator” (Joseph Smith) is able to use any information he wants while adding additional details and make it look like he knew what he was talking about.
The veracity and value of the book of Abraham cannot be settled by scholarly debate concerning the book’s translation and historicity. The book’s status as scripture lies in the eternal truths it teaches and the powerful spirit it conveys. The book of Abraham imparts profound truths about the nature of God, His relationship to us as His children, and the purpose of this mortal life. The truth of the book of Abraham is ultimately found through careful study of its teachings, sincere prayer, and the confirmation of the Spirit.
Once more, we’re left with the “faith” card. As Robert Ritner pointed out in his “A Response to ‘Translation. . . of the Book of Abraham,'”
Such a declaration [that the veracity of the Book of Abraham is to be found in prayer] may seem reasonable to those already predisposed to accept it, but on closer reading, the LDS church posting suggests discomfort with its own conclusions and reasoning. Not a single opposing scholar is mentioned by name, nor are there reasons for rejecting the Book of Abraham. Yet the LDS paper attempts to engage in scholarly debate from a one-sided position, repeatedly citing in the footnotes the same limited set of apologists who are primarily church employees at BYU in Provo.
Everyone is free to believe that Joseph Smith had the ability to translate from the papyri There is, however, absolutely no “veracity and value of the book of Abraham.” The evidence points against the claim that he did so. Much is at stake here for the LDS Church and her apologists. If Smith did not have the academic ability to properly “translate” a common piece of Egyptian funerary papyrus, it would be doubtful that he had the translating ability to decipher the “reformed Egyptian” supposedly contained in the Book of Mormon. What Charles Larson wrote in 1985 is true still today:
The message coming from LDS spokesmen today appears to be more and more one of accommodation: If facts fail to justify faith (what one wishes to believe), then faith should overrule facts. This sort of thinking is evasive, and must be set aside if any real reckoning with the facts is to take place. (By His Own Hands Upon Papyrus, 169, 171)
The discovery of the papyri that Smith used for the Book of Abraham puts serious doubt on Smith’s translating ability and his claim to being a prophet. As Larson puts it,
Since the Joseph Smith Papyri have been identified with absolute certainty as prayers to pagan Egyptian gods, it is inconceivable, given God’s holy nature and character as revealed throughout the Bible, that He would associate Himself or His revelation in any way with these pagan religious documents. Regardless of which of the above views of the Book of Abraham one holds, it is surely inconceivable that the God of the Bible would compromise his exclusivity as the one, true God by co-mingling His revelation with the idolatrous pagan teachings and rites of Egypt as expressed in the Joseph Smith Papyri. (By His Own Hand Upon Papyrus, 166)
I agree with Sandra Tanner of Utah Lighthouse Ministry when she states,
“It is time for the LDS Church to decanonize the Book of Abraham and admit that it is a product of Joseph Smith’s imagination.” (Salt Lake City Messenger, October 2014, Issue 123)
Come clean now. The sooner, the better.
The article by Robert Ritner is also worth looking at here.
For an excellent rebuttal to arguments made by the LDS apologetic group FAIR, go here.
Books that discuss this topic include:
- By His Own Hand Upon Papyrus: A New Look at the Joseph Smith Papyri by Charles Larson
- Joseph Smith and the Origins of the Book of Mormon (2nd Edition) by David Persuitte
- The Rise of Mormonism: 1816-1844: Second Edition, Revised and Enlarged by H. Michael Marquardt
- What Every Mormon (and Non-Mormon) Should Know by Edmond C. Gruss and Lane A. Thuet