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Part 4: The Book of Abraham

“On 3 July 1835 a man named Michael Chandler brought four Egyptian mummies and several papyrus scrolls of ancient Egyptian writings to Kirtland, Ohio. The mummies and papyri had been discovered [excavated] in Egypt several years earlier by Antonio Lebolo. Kirtland was one of many stops in the eastern United States for Chandler’s mummy exhibition. Chandler was offering the mummies and rolls of papyrus for sale and, at the urging of the Prophet Joseph Smith, several members of the Church donated money to purchase them. In a statement dated 5 July 1835, Joseph Smith, declaring the importance of these ancient Egyptian writings, recorded: “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.”

Doctrine and Church History – Seminary Teacher Manual, 2013, Lesson 152: The Coming Forth of the Pearl of Great Price



After Joseph Smith’s death, the Egyptian artifacts were passed from his mother, Lucy, to Emma and son, Joseph Smith III. The mummies and papyri were sold to the St. Louis Museum. The museum closed in 1863 and its collection moved to the Chicago Museum, which was destroyed in The Great Chicago Fire of 1871. Many recovered artifacts were dispersed throughout the country. The remaining papyri made their way to the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art, and in 1966 were discovered in the museum archives. After being contacted, the Church purchased these pieces back from the Metropolitan. The Church now possesses original papyri labeled “Facsimile 1” and “Joseph Smith Papyri 2-8.”


The Book of Abraham is the result of Joseph Smith’s interpretation of the hieroglyphics contained in these papyri. It is regarded as a book of scripture written by the hand of Abraham about his life and visions of the creation and pre-mortal life. The book also contains 3 facsimiles drawn by Abraham and Joseph Smith’s interpretation of their imagery.

These papyri have been studied by modern Egyptologists and have been determined to be a collection of documents known as “the Book of the Dead,” which are traditionally placed with the deceased to aid in their transition into the afterlife. The hieroglyphics identify the deceased as Hor; likely one of the mummies sold to Joseph Smith. Presented here are several issues regarding each facsimile and the translation of the hieroglyphics.

Chapter 17

The Rosetta Stone


The Rosetta Stone is a large ancient Egyptian tablet inscribed with a decree issued by King Ptolemy V at Memphis, Egypt in 196 BC. The same decree appears in three different scripts: Egyptian hieroglyphs, Demotic, and Ancient Greek. After its discovery in 1799, the Rosetta Stone provided the key to decoding ancient Egyptian text.


Background

During the Napoleonic expedition to Egypt in 1799, French soldier Pierre-François Bouchard discovered the stone near Rosetta, Egypt in the Nile Delta. As the first Ancient Egyptian multilingual text recovered in modern times, the Rosetta Stone had the potential to decipher, up to this point, an indecipherable ancient language. In 1822, Scholar and founder of Egyptology, Jean-François Champollion, announced the complete translation of the Egyptian hieroglyphics.

Access To The Translation

Before it became illegal, Egyptian antiquities excavator Antonio Lebolo removed eleven mummies with accompanying papyri from Thebes, Egypt. The mummies made their way to Salesman Michael Chandler in New York where they became the first Egyptian artifacts in America. Chandler traveled to Philadelphia before Kirtland, Ohio looking for buyers, when he met Joseph Smith in 1835. Joseph urged the Kirtland members of the Church to donate for the purchase of Chandler’s remaining unsold artifacts. Joseph didn’t know that a translation of Ancient Egyptian was completed only years earlier in France when he set out to translate the papyri himself.

Was Joseph able to decipher the hieroglyphics? Luckily, he kept detailed records of his struggles with the translation process. The Church has made his notebooks available as the Kirtland Egyptian Papers 1-10. The results of his efforts are recorded in Facsimiles 1-3 and the Book of Abraham.


Chapter 18

Facsimile 1


Facsimile 1 has two major issues: first, Joseph incorrectly filled in the missing portion of the papyrus, and second, Joseph’s interpretation of the image appears to be incorrect.

 

Missing Portion of Papyrus


This image at left shows the actual papyrus from josephsmithpapers.org, which Joseph glued onto a piece of paper and penciled in the missing image. The image at right shows Joseph’s filled-in image from the Book of Abraham and is known as Facsimile 1. Shown below are similar Egyptian pictographs containing the missing head.



Common burial artwork depicts Anubis, the jackal-headed god of the afterlife, preparing those recently deceased for their journey beyond. Joseph appears to have incorrectly filled in the missing portion of the papyri he purchased from Mr. Chandler.

Mistranslations


A number of modern Egyptologists have translated the text of this facsimile, and their conclusions are all in close agreement. The text simply conveys information about the deceased for whom the papyri were created.

 

Joseph’s translation claims the four jars underneath the table represent various

idolatrous gods, however, similar jars have been found to contain the organs of the deceased from the embalming procedure. Lastly, compared to the modern translation of the image, Joseph’s interpretation of each section contains significant errors.


Chapter 19

Facsimile 2


A hypocephalus is a small disk-shaped image placed under the heads of the dead by ancient Egyptians from the Later Period onwards. The shape symbolized the eye of Ra and the markings contain images of various deities and excerpts from the Book of the Dead.

Missing Portion of Papyrus

The original papyri was destroyed in the museum during the Great Chicago Fire. The earliest surviving image of Facsimile 2 was copied by Elder Willard Richards. Much like Facsimile 1, Facsimile 2 was also missing a portion of the papyrus and was filled in to make the image appear complete before printing. The left shows Willard’s copy and Joseph’s filled-in image at the right.

 

Normally, undamaged hypocephali depict a four ram-headed god as the central figure (as shown in these images of undamaged papyri below) but since the top of this figure in Joseph’s papyrus was missing, he filled it in using the head and shoulders from the figure directly above it.


Regarding the central figure in these types of burial documents, Egyptologist Dr. Samuel A.B. Mercer stated,

It represents the four-headed ram-god, a form of the united spirits of the four elements.

Samuel A.B. Mercer – Joseph Smith as an Interpreter and Translator of Egyptian, Utah Survey, 1913

Additionally, Joseph used parts of other papyri to fill in the missing portion of Facsimile 2. The boat came from Papyri IV and the missing circular text from Papyri VI.




Chapter 20

Facsimile 3


As with Facsimiles 1 & 2, Facsimile 3 is commonly found as part of a collection of documents referred to as “the Book of the Dead.” Evidence suggests that Joseph Smith’s interpretation of the characters appears to be incorrect.



Missing Portion of Papyrus

In the Book of Abraham, Joseph interprets Facsimile 3 as Abraham sitting on Pharaoh’s throne teaching the court the principles of astronomy. He labels Figure 1 as Abraham and Figure 2 as Pharaoh. Actually, this is Osiris, God of the Underworld, and his goddess wife Isis. The hieroglyphics above each of their heads identify them as such. Additionally, Joseph misidentifies figures 2 and 4 as males when the figures are actually females.

Shown below are similar Egyptian pictographs containing the same scene and the characters


Chapter 21

The Translation

The Church has consistently taught that the original author of the Book of Abraham is Abraham himself. For many years Egyptologists have refuted this claim stating that the actual translation of the papyri does not match the printed text. Covered in this chapter: the original claim, a statement by an LDS scholar, the recent statement by the Church, and a statement by an Egyptologist regarding the Book of Abraham.

The Original Claim

For nearly 180 years the Church has taught that the Book of Abraham is the result of Joseph Smith’s translation of hieroglyphics written by the hand of Abraham.

The Book of Abraham – Heading

The writings of Abraham while he was in Egypt, called the Book of Abraham, written by his own hand, upon papyrus.

“In a statement dated 5 July 1835, Joseph Smith, declaring the importance of these ancient Egyptian writings, recorded: “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.”

LDS.org, Pearl of Great Price Student Manual

Statement by LDS Scholar

Michael Dennis Rhodes – Associate professor of ancient scripture at Brigham Young University.

Rhodes is an Egyptologist who has published a translation of some of the Joseph Smith papyri. In his book, The Hor Book of Breathings: A Translation and Commentary, Rhodes writes:

“The Hor Book of Breathings is a part of eleven papyri fragments in the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art that came to the attention of Dr. Aziz Atiyah in 1966. These fragments, subsequently donated to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 1967, came from three separate papyri rolls. Joseph Smith Papyri I, X, and XI are from the Book of Breathings belonging to Hor (Ór), the son of Usiwer (Wsir-wr), which is the subject of this book.”

Prof. Rhodes is one of the Mormon scholars that the Church is referring to when it states,

“Mormon and non-Mormon Egyptologists agree that the characters on the fragments do not match the translation given in the book of Abraham.”

LDS.org, Translation and Historicity of the Book of Abraham, 2014

Statement by Egyptologist


After the Church made the papyri available for public study, Egyptologists refuted the accuracy of Joseph’s translation.

Dr. Robert K. Ritner – Professor of Egyptology at the University of Chicago and at Yale University:

“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 in authenticity 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.”

Robert K Ritner – “Translation and historicityof the book of Abraham,” A Response

The very same papyri that Joseph possessed have been studied by LDS and non-LDS Egyptologists. Both agree that the papyri are The Book of Breathings of Hor, and that the translations make no mention of Abraham.

Recent Statement by the Church


In light of a growing body of opposing evidence, the Church has acknowledged that the original claim to the Book of Abraham is untrue. On July 8, 2014, published on LDS.org, the article, Translation and Historicity of the Book of Abraham, confirms that the Book of Abraham is, in fact, not a translation of the Egyptian papyri.

 

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

LDS.org Translation and Historicity of the Book of Abraham, July 8, 2014.

 

Abraham and the Papyri


Since the Church has now come forward acknowledging that Joseph’s translation of the papyri is incorrect, where did he get the idea that the scrolls containing the Book of Abraham in the first place?

“The public mind has been excited of late, by reports which have been circulated concerning certain Egyptian mummies and ancient records which were purchased by certain gentlemen of Kirtland, last July. It has been said that the purchasers of these antiquities pretend they have the bodies of Abraham, Abimelech the king of the Philistines, Joseph who was sold into Egypt., for the purpose of attracting the attention of the multitude, and gulling the unwary…”

The Latter Day Saints’ Millennial Star, no.34, vol. XV. Saturday August 20, 1853. pp. 549

To increase sales, Michael Chandler told the saints in Kirtland that the mummies were the bodies of Abraham and Joseph, who was sold into Egypt.

Chapter 22

Expert Views


Views from experts in the fields of Egyptology regarding the general claims of the Book of Abraham are collected below:

 

University Professors


Continuing from Chapter 16, the remaining responses from university professors regarding the historical claims of the Book of Abraham.

 

Peter Brand – Professor of Ancient History and Egyptology, PhD in Ancient Egyptian Language and Literature from the University of Toronto

Hi Zachary. Its good to hear from you and I’m happy to help you out. Just as background I am an Egyptologist and I am also someone who has a close friend and colleague (a historian) who is Mormon but who does not necessarily believe everything the elders tell him. As it happens I suspect that I know, too, who the “notable PhD’s” the members of your church are referring to. I am not an expert on LDS but I do understand that there is a longstanding connection with Egyptology based on a papyrus the Church holds. There are two Egyptolologists from Brigham Young University who are also members of the church and who often act to promote and defend the Church’s teachings in the academic realm, but with little success in changing minds I suspect. I am not myself a believer and I am highly skeptical of the Book of Mormon and the Book of Abraham. I would also agree with the mainstream Egyptological view that the Joseph Smith Papyrus is simply a Roman era set of Egyptian papyri with various Ancient Egyptian texts including sections of a “Book of the Dead” and another known as the “book of breathing”. There is no connection between these texts and any aspect of Christianity or Judaism. Outside of Mormon scholars, there is not any recognition of or belief in a “reformed egyptian” script or language. The photos of so called “reformed Egyptian” documents that I have seen do not resemble genuine Egyptian scripts of any kind from any period of Egypt’s long pharaonic history including both hieroglyphic forms or the more cursive forms known as hieratic and demotic. They look like a modern person’s attempt at making cryptogramatic symbols of a modernly invented secret code in that they resemble nonsense “letters” of an alphabet rather than pictorial symbols like hieroglyphs or even the much more varied and differently shaped ligatures of hieratic or demotic Egyptian cursive writing.

There is simply no evidence that the Smith Papyri are anything more than mainstream Egyptologists have identified them as being– namely typical pharaonic funerary papyri from the last centuries of pagan civilization in Egypt. Despite years of study at BYU, no one has duplicated Smith’s “readings” of the papyri as the “book of Abraham” which strongly suggests it is a fictional invention of his imagination. This is not necessarily to say that he didn’t believe himself what he told to others. Who knows? People are as capable of deceiving themselves as they are of others. A good rule of thumb in judging such matters is that “Extraordinary claims should have extraordinary evidence” so, when they haul up the actual body or capture a live plesiosaurus in Loch Ness in Scotland then I will believe in the Lock Ness Monster. I desperately wanted to believe in it when I was 12 but after reading a 300 page book on it from the library with some fuzzy pictures and invented drawings i came to realize that there was no evidence for such a creature. Sale of antiquities was very common in the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century. Given that– unless you believe it to be a “miracle”– how likely is it that someone like Smith who knew nothing about Egyptology per se, would just happen to buy the “right” papyri that happened to have this “lost book” of scripture? It strikes anyone who does not already believe the truth of it, or who wants to believe the truth of it, as being highly unlikely. Of course, people often want to believe the highly improbable and can be easily swayed to believe in fantastic or miraculous claims. This is often how new religions spread. Simply by being old, religions can often become accepted as being “fact” or “true” in part because so many people have believed them for so long. I hope this helps. Let me know if you have any further questions. Best wishes,Peter Brand.

 

Salima Ikram – Professor of Egyptology at the American University in Cairo, PhD in Egyptology and Museum Studies from the University of Cambridge.

“The Book of Abraham and Reformed Egyptian: In 1835 Joseph Smith purchased Egyptian papyri from a traveling mummy exhibit and revealed that they were the writings of the prophet of Abraham. Today, these facsimiles have caused considerable controversy. Many Egyptologists have noted that the facsimiles have no bearing on Joseph Smith’s translations and are instead common Egyptian funerary texts from the first century B.C.”

I echo the sentiments of the Egyptologists. Salima Ikram.

Peter Der Manuelian – Professor of Egyptology and Director, Harvard Semitic Museum, Harvard University. PhD in Egyptology from the University of Chicago.

“Dear Zachary, Thank you for this email. I am one of those who believe that the facsimiles have no bearing on Joseph Smith’s translations and are instead common Egyptian funerary texts. I am not personally aware of any professional Egyptologists who feel differently. With best wishes, Peter Manuelian.”

Additional Egyptologists

There are many more experts of Egyptology who have studied the authenticity of the Book of Abraham.

Arthur Mace – Assistant Curator for the Department of Egyptian Art of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York

 

“The Book of Abraham, it is hardly necessary to say, is a pure fabrication. Cuts 1 and 3 are inaccurate copies of well known scenes on funeral papyri, and cut 2 is a copy of one of the magical discs which in the late Egyptian period were placed under the heads of mummies. There were about forty of these latter known in museums and they are all very similar in character. Joseph Smith’s interpretation of these cuts is a farrago of nonsense from beginning to end. Egyptian characters can now be read almost as easily as Greek, and five minutes’ study in an Egyptian gallery of any museum should be enough to convince any educated man."

A. H. Sayce – Oxford University

"It is difficult to deal seriously with Joseph Smith’s impudent fraud. The facsimile from the Book of Abraham No. 2 is an ordinary hypocephalus, but the hieroglyphics upon it have been copied so ignorantly that hardly one of them is correct. I need scarcely say that Kolob, etc., are unknown to the Egyptian language. Smith has turned the goddess into a king and Osiris into Abraham."

Flinders Petrie – London University

"They are copies of Egyptian subjects of which I have seen dozens of examples. They are centuries later than Abraham. The attempts to guess a meaning for them in the professed explanations are too absurd to be noticed. It may be safely said that there is not one single word that is true in these explanations."

James H. Breasted – Haskell Oriental Museum, University of Chicago

It will be seen, then, that if Joseph Smith could read ancient Egyptian writing, his ability to do so had no connection with the decipherment of hieroglyphics by European scholars. The three facsimiles in question represent equipment which will be and has been found in unnumbered thousands of Egyptian graves. The point, then, is that in publishing these facsimiles of Egyptian documents as part of an unique revelation to Abraham, Joseph Smith was attributing to Abraham not three unique documents of which no other copies exist, but was attributing to Abraham a series of documents which were the common property of a whole nation of people who employed them in every human burial, which they prepared. The “problem” is if I accept that the Book of Abraham merely “originated” with the scrolls and is not an actual translation then I also have to try and accept that God and Joseph decided to fool me into believing a true scripture by telling me it was a translation when it was not a translation. I stewed in that “God is an occasional liar for my benefit” paradigm for a few years. Certainly, many LDS folks go through a similar process.

The ultimate cognitive dissonance here is that either God lies to convince me his scripture is true or Joseph lies. I decided that Joseph lied, even if the gospel he promoted is “good,” even if the Church has a good influence on peoples lives, I was not going to believe in a God that lies to me to bolster his claims; therefore, I conclude that Joseph was a fraud. I hope the true believers in the Church understand that folks like me are not against them. I sincerely hope the brethren find a way to navigate this human disaster that maintains many of the positive, unique aspects of LDS culture. They should’ve started dealing honestly with this issues a hundred years ago. Instead, we received “lying for the lord” for 100 years and now we receive obfuscating for the lord. I suppose I’ll call that an improvement, but we deserve better.

 

Samuel A. B. Mercer – Hibbard collection of Egyptian Reproductions at the Western Theological Seminary

None of these, either human or divine, who helped in Joseph Smith’s translation, had any conception of the most commonplace Egyptian Characters.

 

At the time of publication of the Book of Abraham, America still had not yet received the Rosetta Stone’s translation of ancient Egyptian. Joseph’s interpretation was unable to be verified at the time, and no one could argue its accuracy. Once Egyptologists had the opportunity to study the papyri, they commented that Joseph’s translations were incorrect and the Book of Abraham was not what it claimed to be. The modern Church has known for decades that this was the case, yet has only now quietly admitted to it.




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