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Book of Abraham

The Book of Abraham is a scriptural text for Latter Day Saint movement denominations. Joseph Smith, Jr., the movement's founder, stated that it was "a translation of some ancient records....purporting to be the writings of Abraham, while he was in Egypt, called the Book of Abraham, written by his own hand, upon papyrus". Joseph Smith stated he translated the majority of the text in July 1835. The complete work was first published serially in the Latter Day Saint movement newspaper Times and Seasons in 1842. In 1851 it was republished in England as part of the Pearl of Great Price, and was added to the canon of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 1880.

For many years the location of the papyri was unknown. However, in 1966 ten fragments were found in the archives of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Subsequently, an additional fragment was located in the LDS Church Historian's Office. They are now referred to as the Joseph Smith Papyri. Both Mormon and non-Mormon Egyptologists have examined the fragments and concluded that they are portions of funerary texts, dating to about the first century BC. The interpretation of the texts and facsimiles has been the source of significant controversy. Several non LDS Egyptologists and linguists have examined the papyri and the facsimiles and disagree with Smith's explanations. Several books have been written on the subject.


Several papyri and eleven mummies were discovered in Thebes by Antonio Lebolo between 1818 and 1822. Sometime between 1822 and his death on February 19, 1830, Lebolo arranged to have them sold. The mummies were shipped to New York, where they were purchased by Michael Chandler in 1833. Over the next two years Chandler toured the eastern United States, displaying and selling some of the mummies.

In July 1835, Chandler brought the remaining four mummies and associated papyri to Kirtland, Ohio, then home of the Latter-Day Saints. Although the Rosetta Stone had been discovered in 1799, the ability to read Egyptian wasn't well developed until the 1850s. Chandler asked Joseph Smith to look at the scrolls and give some insight into what was written on them, due to Smith's notoriety and claim to have translated the golden plates of the Book of Mormon. After examining the scrolls, Smith, Joseph Coe and Simeon Andrews purchased the four mummies and at least five papyrus documents for $2400 Smith stated:

... with W.W. Phelps and Oliver Cowdery as scribes, 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. — a more full account of which will appear in its place, as I proceed to examine or unfold them.

Joseph Smith translated the majority of the Book of Abraham text in July and a few days in November 1835 and did some minor revisions in March 1842. By October, he had also begun

"...translating an alphabet to the Book of Abraham, and arranging a grammar of the Egyptian language as practiced by the ancients.
Smith's journal entry for Thursday October 1, 1835 reads:
"This afternoon labored on the Egyptan alphabet, in company with brsr. O. Cowdery, and W.W.Phelps...
The documents associated with this effort are referred to as the Kirtland Egyptian Alphabet and Grammar (EAG) or the Kirtland Egyptian Papers (KEP).


Book of Abraham Text

The Book of Abraham tells a story of Abraham's life, travels to Canaan and Egypt and a vision he received concerning the universe and the creation of the world. The book has five chapters; chapters 1 and 2 address Abraham’s early life and his fight against the idolatry in his family and society. It recounts how pagan priests tried to sacrifice Abraham and that an angel came to his rescue. Chapter 2 includes information about God’s covenant with Abraham and how it would be fulfilled. Chapters 3 through 5 contain the vision about astronomy, the creation of the world, and the creation of man.


Three images and Joseph Smith's explanations of them are included with the text of the Book of Abraham. Facsimile No. 1 and Facsimile No. 3 are part of the Scroll of Hor, which contained Joseph Smith Papyrus I, X and XI. Facsimile No. 2 is the Hypocephalus of Sheshonq. The location of its source is currently unknown. At least two artists, including engraver Reuben Hedlock, created woodcuts of these images, which were used to print the articles which appeared in the Times and Seasons in 1842.

According to Joseph Smith's explanations, Facsimile No. 1 portrays Abraham fastened to an altar, with the idolatrous priest of Elkenah attempting to sacrifice him. Facsimile No. 2 contains representations of celestial objects including; the heavens and earth, 15 other planets or stars, the sun and moon, the number 1000 and God revealing the grand Key-words of the Holy Priesthood. Facsimile No. 3 portrays Abraham in the court of Pharaoh "reasoning upon the principles of Astronomy".

Interpretations and contributions to the Latter Day Saint Movement

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

The Book of Abraham was canonized in 1880 by the LDS church, and it remains an important part of the larger scriptural work, The The Pearl of Great Price. The Book of Abraham text is a source of some unique Latter-day Saint doctrines such as the exaltation of humanity, the plurality of gods, priesthood, pre-mortal existence, and other inhabited worlds in the cosmos. The Book of Abraham also contains the only reference in Mormon canon to the star Kolob, which, according to the text, is the star closest to where God lives.

Community of Christ

The Community of Christ, formerly known as the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (RLDS), has not accepted the Book of Abraham as canonical.

Controversy and Criticism

Since its publication in 1842, the Book of Abraham has been a source of controversy. Non Mormon Egyptologists, beginning with Theodule Deveria in the late 19th century, have disagreed with Joseph Smith's explanations of the facsimiles. They also assert that damaged portions of the papyri have been reconstructed incorrectly. The controversy intensified in the late 1960s when the Joseph Smith Papyri were located. Translation of the Egyptian text revealed that it did not resemble the Book of Abraham text. Latter-Day Saint linguists and Egyptologists including noted Mormon scholar Hugh Nibley, BYU Egyptologist John Gee, Michael Rhodes and Brian Haugland have offered detailed rebuttals to the criticisms and explanations of the differences.

Early criticism of the facsimiles

Facsimile No. 1

Joseph Smith gave explanations for 12 elements of this image, which critics claim are inaccurate, based on interpretations by non LDS Egyptologists.

Figure Joseph Smith Explanation Explanation by Egyptologists (quotes are from Deveria 1860)
1 The Angel of the Lord. "The soul of Osiris (which should have a human head)"
2 Abraham fastened upon an altar. "Osiris coming to life on his couch, which is in the shape of a lion"
3 The idolatrous priest of Elkenah attempting to offer up Abraham as a sacrifice. "The God Anubis (who should have a jackal's head) effecting the resurrection of Osiris"
4 The altar for sacrifice by the idolatrous priests, standing before the gods of Elkenah, Libnah, Mahmackrah, Korash, and Pharaoh. "The funeral bed of Osiris"
5 The idolatrous god of Elkenah. Canopic jar portraying Qebehsenuf with a falcon's head - one of the four sons of Horus
6 The idolatrous god of Libnah. Canopic jar portraying Duamutef with a jackal's head - one of the four sons of Horus
7 The idolatrous god of Mahmackrah. Canopic jar portraying Hapy with an ape's head - one of the four sons of Horus
8 The idolatrous god of Korash. Canopic jar portraying Imsety with a human head - one of the four sons of Horus
9 The idolatrous god of Pharaoh. "The sacred crocodile, symbolic of the god Sedet"
10 Abraham in Egypt. "Altar laden with offerings"
11 Designed to represent the pillars of heaven, as understood by the Egyptians. "An ornament peculiar to Egyptian art"
12 Raukeeyang, signifying expanse, or the firmament over our heads; but in this case, in relation to this subject, the Egyptians meant it to signify Shaumau, to be high, or the heavens, answering to the Hebrew word, Shaumahyeem. "Customary representation of ground in Egyptian paintings (The word Shauman is not Egyptian, and the Hebrew word is badly copied)"

Lacunae in facsimile 1

At least three Egyptologists who have analyzed the facsimile and the original believe that the missing portions were erroneously restored, either by Smith or someone else. These alleged misconstructions were later found to be precisely in the same places where portions of the original papyri were missing. (See section below: Loss and rediscovery of the papyri)

Facsimile No. 2

The figure represented by Facsimile 2 is called a hypocephalus. It was placed under the head or feet of the deceased to assist them in remembering what to say and do in relation to the 'gods' and trials they would face after death. These personalized instructions are often accompanied by a Book of the Dead or Book of Breathings and are a synopsis of information contained in them.

As with Facsimile No. 1, Smith's explanation differs from the standard interpretation. He stated that the central figure in this Hypocephalus represents "Kolob, signifying the first creation, nearest to the celestial, or the residence of God." He gave astronomical explanations for some of the figures. For the others he stated that their interpretations “will be given in the own due time of the Lord”.

Kerry Shirts noted the presence of the name hieroglyph for Chnum-Re (Khnum-Re) above the figure labeled 1. Chnm-Re is the Egyptian "First Creator" the god who organized everything out of the primordial chaos. Also noted is the amulet of Osiris, or level and square, immediately behind the head of the seated figure labeled 7, in the form of a plumb level and square, as described by Petrie. and Budge

John Gee provided comparisons of the meanings of the figures in Facsimile No. 2 in his article "Towards an Interpretation of Hypocephali" which illustrate the importance of using the associated text as well as the images when interpreting the meaning of the images on hypocephali. Gee stated; "Taken as a whole, the figures and illustrations of the hypocephalus all seem to point toward the Egyptians' hope in a resurrection and life after death. Although this message seems to be conveyed by a strange assortment of gods, animals and mixtures of both, it is well to remember that to the Egyptians these were all aspects of the One God who manifested himself in many forms.

Michael Rhodes explains that "Although we can, with the help of other similar texts, reconstruct the text and figures of the Joseph Smith Hypocephalus with a fair degree of accuracy, we are still far from completely understanding the message which the Egyptians meant to convey by it. The text of the hypocephalus itself seems to be an address to Osiris, the god of the Dead, on behalf of the deceased, Sheshonk. As is the case with most Egyptian texts (especially religious text), it is full of references to matters either obscure or unknown to us, although undoubtedly clear to the Egyptians. Needless to say, much work is still to be done before we can fully understand the import of the Joseph Smith Hypocephalus, and hypocephali in general.

Figure Joseph Smith Explanation Explanation by Egyptologists (quotes are from Deveria)
1 Kolob, signifying the first creation, nearest to the celestial, or the residence of God. First in government, the last pertaining to the measurement of time. The measurement according to celestial time, which celestial time signifies one day to a cubit. One day in Kolob is equal to a thousand years according to the measurement of this earth, which is called by the Egyptians Jah-oh-eh. "The spirit of the four elements (according to Champollion), or rather of the four winds, or the four cardinal points; the soul of the terrestrial world. This god is always represented with four rams' heads, and his image has certainly been altered here. — They have also evidently made a very clumsy attempt at copying the double human head of the god figured above, fig. 2, instead of the four rams' heads. The word Jah-oh-eh has nothing Egyptian in it; it resembles the Hebrew word [redacted] badly transcribed." (emphasis in original) The name hieroglyph above the central figure is Chnm-Re, the Egyptian "First Creator" god who organized everything out of the primordial chaos.
2 Stands next to Kolob, called by the Egyptians Oliblish, which is the next grand governing creation near to the celestial or the place where God resides; holding the key of power also, pertaining to other planets; as revealed from God to Abraham, as he offered sacrifice upon an altar, which he had built unto the Lord. "Ammon-Ra, with two human heads, meant probably to represent both the invisible or mysterious principle of Ammon, and the visible or luminous principle of Ra, the sun; or else the double and simultaneous principle of father and son; which characterizes divinity in the religion of ancient Egypt. — The word Oliblish is no more Egyptian than those already met with, nor than those which are to be found in the Mormon explanation."
3 Is made to represent God, sitting upon his throne, clothed with power and authority; with a crown of eternal light upon his head; representing also the grand Key-words of the Holy Priesthood, as revealed to Adam in the Garden of Eden, as also to Seth, Noah, Melchizedek, Abraham, and all to whom the Priesthood was revealed. "The sun god Ra, with a hawk's head, seated in his boat. In the field the two symbolical figuring, according to M. de Rougé, the fixed points of an astronomical period."
4 Answers to the Hebrew word Raukeeyang, signifying expanse, or the firmament of the heavens; also a numerical figure, in Egyptian signifying one thousand; answering to the measuring of the time of Oliblish, which is equal with Kolob in its revolution and in its measuring of time. Budge in his "Osiris and the Egyptian Resurrection", vol. 2, states; "Isis prays and says to the god in the ship "Thou hast conquered heaven by thy greatness of thy majesty in thy name of 'Prince of the festival of the fifteenth day.' [Note the fifteen dots on the side of the ship.] "Thy crown penetrateth the height of heaven, thou art the companion of the stars, and the guide of every god." (p. 77f). Deveria commented; "The Hebrew word [redacted], Roki'a, expansum, solidum, ecclum, firmamentum, besides being badly described, has no relation whatever to this figure, which represents a mummified hawk, called in Egyptian Ah'em. It is the symbol of the divine repose of death; its extended wings have reference to the resurrection."
5 Is called in Egyptian Enish-go-on-dosh; this is one of the governing planets also, and is said by the Egyptians to be the Sun, and to borrow its light from Kolob through the medium of Kae-e-vanrash, which is the grand Key, or, in other words, the governing power, which governs fifteen other fixed planets or stars, as also Floeese or the Moon, the Earth and the Sun in their annual revolutions. This planet receives its power through the medium of Kli-flos-is-es, or Hah-ko-kau-beam, the stars represented by numbers 22 and 23, receiving light from the revolutions of Kolob. "The mystic cow, the great cow, symbolizing the inferior hemisphere of the heavens. It is called the virgin cow at ch. 162 of the funerary ritual, which particularly enjoins that its image be painted on the hypocephalus, and another image of it in gold on the throat of the defunct. It is the form of Hathor, who figures on several monuments under the name of noub, gold. Behind the cow is a goddess, whose head, represented by a mystic eye in a disk, is incorrectly copied." (emphasis in original)
6 Represents this earth in its four quarters. "The four funerary genii, the sons of [Horus], Amset, Hapy, Tioumautew, and Kebhsoniw."
7 Represents God sitting upon his throne, revealing through the heavens the grand Key-words of the Priesthood; as, also, the sign of the Holy Ghost unto Abraham, in the form of a dove. The form of Ammon, with a bird's tail, or Horammon (?). An ithyphallic serpent, with human legs, offers him a symbolical eye. This last figure has certainly been altered in the hypocephalus of the Mormons.
8 Contains writings that cannot be revealed unto the world; but is to be had in the Holy Temple of God. "Four lines of the linear heiroglyphic text, which are numbered from bottom to top, instead of top to bottom. The meaning is: O great god in Sekhem, O great God, Lord of heaven, earth, and hell...Osiris S'es'esq..."
9 Ought not to be revealed at the present time.
10 Also.
11 Also. If the world can find out these numbers, so let it be. Amen.
12, 13, 14, 15 Will be given in the own due time of the Lord. Four lines of writing similar to the former, of which they are the pendant. They appear to be numbered upside down, and are illegibly copied.
16, 17 Two more lines which cannot be deciphered in the copy. It begins above the god with two human heads, fig. 2 ; and there is in it twice mention made of a sacred dwelling-place in Heliopolis.
18, 19, 20, and 21 These columns of writing, illegible in the copy. It is evident to me that several of the figures to be found in these various MSS. have been intentionally altered.

Lacunae in facsimile 2

Michael Rhodes stated; "A careful examination of Facsimile 2 shows that there is a difference between most of the hieroglyphic signs and the signs on the right third of the figure on the outer edge as well as the outer portions of the sections numbered 12-15. These signs are hieratic, not hieroglyphic, and are inverted, or upside down, to the rest of the text. In fact, they are a fairly accurate copy of lines 2, 3, and 4 of the Joseph Smith Papyrus XI, which contains a portion of the Book of Breathings. Especially clear is the word snsn, in section 14, and part of the name of the mother of the owner of the papyrus, (tay-)uby.t, repeated twice on the outer edge. An ink drawing of the hypocephalus in the Church Historian's office shows these same areas as being blank. It is likely that these portions were destroyed on the original hypocephalus and someone (the engraver, one of Joseph Smith's associates, or Joseph himself) copied the lines from the Book of Breathings papyrus for aesthetic purposes."

Facsimile No. 3

Joseph Smith claimed that this image represented Abraham sitting on the Pharaoh's throne teaching the principles of astronomy to the Egyptian court. Extrabiblical sources support the notion that Abraham taught the Egyptians both astronomy and arithmetic. Smith stated that the figure behind "Abraham in Egypt" is "King Pharaoh, whose name is given in the characters above his head." The figure before "Abraham" is "Prince of Pharaoh, King of Egypt". The dark character is "Olimlah, a slave belonging to the prince" and in between is "Shulem, one of the king’s principal waiters".

Egyptologists interpret this as a typical scene of The Book of the Dead, albeit a later version, which accompanied the Book of Breathings of the owner of the scroll, in which the deceased person for whom the scroll was made is presented before the Egyptian god, Osiris. Hieroglyphics at the bottom of the scroll identify the owner of the scroll, a priest named Hor. Osiris is seated on a throne, wearing the Atef crown and holding a sceptre and a flail. Behind him stands Isis, wearing the Horned Sun Disk headdress. To the right are Ma'at, with the feather headdress, Hor (deceased owner of the scroll) and Anubis the god of embalming.

Figure Joseph Smith Explanation Explanation by Egyptologists (quotes are from Deveria)
General Comment Abraham is reasoning upon the principles of Astronomy, in the king’s court. "Initial painting of a funerary MS. of the lower epoch, which cannot be anterior to the beginning of the Roman dominion."
1 Abraham sitting upon Pharaoh’s throne, by the politeness of the king, with a crown upon his head, representing the Priesthood, as emblematical of the grand Presidency in Heaven; with the scepter of justice and judgment in his hand. "Osiris on his seat."
2 King Pharaoh, whose name is given in the characters above his head. "The goddess Isis. The star she carries in her right hand is the sign of life."
3 Signifies Abraham in Egypt as given also in Figure 10 of Facsimile No. 1. "Altar, with the offering of the deceased, surrounded with lotus flowers, signifying the offering of the defunct."
4 Prince of Pharaoh, King of Egypt, as written above the hand. "The goddess Ma."
5 Shulem, one of the king’s principal waiters, as represented by the characters above his hand. "The deceased, led by Ma into the presence of Osiris. His name is Horus, as may be seen in the prayer which is at the bottom of the picture, and which is addressed to the divinities of the four cardinal points."
6 Olimlah, a slave belonging to the prince. "An unknown divinity, probably Anubis; but his head which ought to be that of a jackal, has been changed."

General statements by Egyptologists

Sometime in 1856, Theodule Deveria, an Egyptologist at the Louvre, had the opportunity to examine the facsimiles published as part of the Book of Abraham. His interpretation, juxtaposed with Smith's interpretation was published in T.B.H. Stenhouse's Book The Rocky Mountain Saints: A Full and Complete History of the Mormons in 1873. Additionally, later in 1912, Reverend Franklin S. Spalding sent copies of the three facsimiles to eight Egyptologists and Semetists soliciting their interpretation of the facsimiles, the results of which were published in Spalding's work Joseph Smith, Jr. As a Translator. Deveria, and each of the eight scholars immediately recognized the facsimiles as portions of ordinary funerary documents, and some harshly condemned Joseph Smith's interpretation, as shown below:

Egyptologist Dr. James H. Breasted, of the University of Chicago noted:

"... these three facsimiles of Egyptian documents in the ‘Pearl of Great Price’ depict the most common objects in the Mortuary religion of Egypt. Joseph Smith’s interpretations of them as part of a unique revelation through Abraham, therefore, very clearly demonstrates that he was totally unacquainted with the significance of these documents and absolutely ignorant of the simplest facts of Egyptian writing and civilization.

Dr. W.M. Flinders Petrie of London University wrote:

"It may be safely said that there is not one single word that is true in these explanations

Dr. A.H. Sayce, Oxford professor of Egyptology,

“It is difficult to deal seriously with Joseph Smith’s impudent fraud.... Smith has turned the Goddess [in Facsimile No. 1] into a king and Osiris into Abraham.”

Egyptologist Theodule Deveria also noted that portions of Facsimile 1 appeared to be incorrect, based on comparison with other similar Egyptian vignettes, and suspected that they had been reconstructed from lacunae in the original papyri. The papyri containing Facsimile 1 is acknowledged by Egyptologists to be a version of The Book of Breathings.

In 1912, Dr. Albert Lythgoe, head of Egyptian Art at the New York Metropolitan Museum, stated that portions of facsmile 1 were incorrect, because "the god Anubus, bending over the mummy, was shown with a human and strangely un-Egyptian head, instead of a jackal's head usual to the scene. Theodule Deveria, Klaus Baer, and Richard A. Parker also noted that Anubus should have been jackal headed. Both Miller and Baer also noted the positions of the limbs of Osiris in the facsimile, stating that one limb should have been below the body, or grasping his phallus as part of the conception of Horus. Upon discovery of the original papyri, critics quickly noted that the portions that Egyptologists had long criticized were missing, including the head of the standing figure, and suggested that Joseph Smith had filled in the missing portions in the published version of the facsimile.

Rhodes points out that "Baer's, Coenen and Quackenbur's assumption that the missing portion would show an erect phallus with a hawk above it representing the conception of Osiris is not likely since the figure on the couch is wearing a kilt. Also the position of the hand of Anubis would be where the erect phallus would be. In all representations showing Osiris with an erect phallus, he is nude.

Scholars and Egyptologists have also criticized Facsimile 2 for containing false reconstruction of lacunae, suggesting that Joseph Smith reconstructed portions of the vignette with characters from another papyrus. Critics note that an incomplete version of facsimile 2 is found among the Kirtland Egyptian Papers, part of which are in the handwriting of Joseph Smith. Comparing the published version of Facsimile 2 with the version from the Kirtland Egyptian Papers and the newly rediscovered papyri, critics note that characters from the original papyri appear to have been used to fill in the missing portions of Facsimile 2, with some of the characters being upside down.

Some Mormon apologists have proposed that the facsimiles were filled in to make the images more aesthetically pleasing, and have little to do with the actual interpretation of them. Others note that it is unclear if Joseph Smith himself filled in the facsimiles, although he was the editor of Times and Seasons, the periodical in which the facsimiles first appeared, and as such would have approved any images that were included.

Apologist perspectives

Thematic parallels

Sir Wallace Budge observed that there are strong thematic parallels between ancient Egyptian religious beliefs and Christianity, particularly with regard to Jesus Christ and the resurrection. He stated; "In Osiris the Christian Egyptians found the prototype of Christ..." and "Never did Christianity find elsewhere in the world a people who's minds were so thoroughly well prepared to receive its doctrines as the Egyptians.

Osiris - Lord of the Earth

Budge observed that from the earliest (Archaic) period, ca. 3500 BC. the Egyptians believed in Osiris, that he suffered death and humiliation at the hands of the powers of evil and after a great struggle in the underworld he was resurrected, became the judge of the dead and enabling all righteous souls to be resurrected themselves. Budge states: "However far back we go, we find that these views about Osiris are assumed to be known to the reader of religious texts and accepted by him, and in the earliest funeral book the position of Osiris in respect to the other gods is identical with that which he is made to hold in the latest copies of the Book of The Dead. Osiris is described as a god of great intelligence, "not compelling... by force of arms, but persuading them to yield to the strength of his reasons. He is the advocate of humanity to Ra, the supreme God of the Egyptian pantheon. Concerning Ra, Budge stated: "...from texts of all periods... we may see that the ideas and beliefs of the Egyptians concerning God were almost identical with those of the Hebrews and Muhammadans at later periods." ie; God is One and alone, and none other existeth with Him; God is... the One Who made all things. "God is from the beginning, and He hath been from the beginning. He existed when nothing else existed, and what existeth He created. God is... eternal and infinite ...and He shall endure to all eternity."[12] "Ra maintained his position as the great head of the companies (of gods) notwithstanding the rise of Amen into prominence. It is said of Osiris that at his birth a voice was heard saying; "The lord of all the earth is born.

Egyptologists explanation challenged

Apologists also note that there may be differences between the vignette and other comparable vignettes, which might render the standard interpretation incorrect. Deveria stated that he'd never seen the resurrection of Osiris represented in funerary manuscripts. He was also of the opinion that, if such a scene existed, it must be extremely rare, and that if Facsimile No. 1 wasn't a modern imitation of the great temple bas-reliefs in which this scene is represented, it had been altered, because the standing figure, who Deveria identified as Anubis, typically has a jackal's head.

There are differences between the woodcut images and the papyri vignettes, as pointed out by Nibley and others. For example, in Facsimile No. 1 the relative positions of the lion couch, standing figure and legs of the reclining figure are different. In the woodcut, the legs of the standing figure are visible below of the lion couch, giving the impression that the couch is open underneath. In the original, the standing figure is in front of the lion couch.

Uniqueness of the vignette

As of 1998, there were twenty-nine known examples of the Book of Breathings Made by Isis, of which the Joseph Smith papyri fragment is an example. Of those twenty nine, eighteen have vignettes associated with them. A comparison of the Book of Abraham facsimiles with these other documents indicates that the Book of Abraham Fasimile No. 1 is unique in at least two ways; It is the only version of a Book of Breathings Made by Isis with this particular image and the position of the legs of the reclining figure, with one raised, is also unique. This is significant because even minor differences in the images or content of the missing portions of the papyri could have an effect on interpretation of the images and text and accuracy of Smith's explanations.

Loss and rediscovery of the papyrus

After Joseph Smith's death, the Egyptian artifacts were in the possession of his mother, Lucy Mack Smith, until her death on May 14, 1856. Joseph Smith's widow, Emma Hale Smith Bidamon, her second husband Lewis C. Bidamon, and her son Joseph Smith III, sold "four Egyptian mummies with the records with them" to Mr. Abel Combs on May 26, 1856. Ten weeks later two of the mummies and some of the papyri were being displayed in St. Louis by a Mr. Edward Wyman. The St. Louis Museum was closed in July 1863 and its collection moved to the Chicago Museum, which was sold to Joseph H. Wood in 1864. The renamed Wood's Museum was destroyed in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871.

Combs kept at least some of the mounted papyri fragments, which passed into the possession of Combs' housekeeper, Charlotte Weaver Huntsman, and then to her daughter, Alice Combs Weaver Heusser. In 1918, Alice Heusser approached the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art (MMA) with some papyri in her possession, which the museum declined. In 1947, Ludlow Bull, associate curator of Department of Egyptian Art at the MMA, acquired them from Edward Heusser, Alice's widower.

In May 1966,Aziz Suryal Atiya of the University of Utah discovered ten of the eleven known papyri fragments in the MMA archives when he recognized one as the vignette known as Facsmile No. 1 from the Pearl of Great Price. According to Henry G. Fischer, curator of the Egyptian Collection at the MMA, an anonymous donation to the MMA made it possible for the LDS church to acquire the papyri. These fragments, originally called the Sensen Papyrus, were designated Joseph Smith Papyrus I, X, and XI. Other fragments, designated JSP II, IV, V, VI, VII, and VIII, are thought by critics to be the Book of Joseph that Smith referred to. Egyptologist John A. Wilson stated that the recovered fragments indicate the existence of at least six to eight separate documents.

In 1968, it was estimated that the fragments constituted roughly one-third of Joseph Smith's original collection of papyri. In 2000, John Gee provided a grahical comparison of the relative extent of the known fragments to other complete examples of similar scrolls which indicated the total at about twenty percent.

There is broad agreement that the recovered papyri are portions of the originals, partly based on the fact that they were pasted onto paper which had "drawings of a temple and maps of the Kirtland, Ohio area" on the back and an accompanying affidavit by Emma Smith, stating that they had been in the possession of Joseph Smith.

Discovery of the Church Historian's Fragment

In addition to the ten fragments that were discovered at the Metropolitan Museum, another fragment was located. In the same article in the February 1968 issue of the Improvement Era that contained the near full size sepia color reproductions of the papyri, entitled; "New Light on Joseph Smith's Papyri - Additional Fragment Disclosed", starting on page 40-A, Jay M. Todd, Editorial Associate for the New Era, discussed the discovery of a fragment which had been stored with the manuscript of the Egyptian Alphabet and Grammar and had been in the Church Historian's archives since at least 1908. Todd referenced an entry in the Church Historian's Office files dated Wednesday, October 17, 1855 describing several items which were being transferred to the newly constructed Historian's Office, including "...three plates of the Book of Abraham." and a "red box with papers, blanks, journal, stereotype and plates."

Todd went on to discuss an entry from a personal journal regarding Brigham Young, dated Saturday, July 11, 1846, describing a meeting between "Brigham Young and the Brethren" and Chief Banquejappa of the Pottawatomie [sic] tribe during which the Chief gave Brigham Young "two sheets of heiroglyphics from the Book of Abraham" and a letter dated 1843 that had been given to them by Joseph Smith. Todd referred to the background of the Historian's fragment as "most puzzling" and stated that William Lund and Earl Olsen, assistant Church Historians, did not recall any information about the fragment except that it had been there throughout their service, which dated to 1911.

The Church Historian's fragment was labled IX by Hugh Nibley and appears on page 40-H of the Improvement Era article, with the text:

and the image heading; "IX. Church Historian's fragment".

Analysis of the papyrus

In November 1967 the LDS church asked Hugh Nibley, a professor of ancient scripture at Brigham Young University (BYU) to study the fragments. Nibley was a linguist, but not an Egyptologist, and subsequently studied under John A. Wilson and Klaus Baer in an attempt to learn enough about the Egyptian characters to translate them himself. The LDS church published sepia photographs of the papyri in its magazine "The Improvement Era" in February 1968, although a translation was not provided at the time. The editors of an independent quarterly journal Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, arranged a translation of the papyri from the photographs by three American Egyptologists; John A. Wilson (University of Chicago, Oriental Institute), Klaus Baer (University of Chicago, Oriental Institute), and Richard A. Parker (Director of the Department of Egyptology, Brown University). Their translations were published in Dialogue in the summer and autumn of 1968.

In 2001, John Gee published an article entitled, "Towards an Interpretation of Hypocephali," which included a list of ancient Egyptian identifications for figures found in hypocephali. The list, gathered from multiple sources, illustrated how modern Egyptologist's identifications of figures in hypocephali do not always match those of the ancient Egyptians or even those of other Egyptologists. Gee stated; "If we ignore the ancient Egyptian identifications of the various figures in the hypocephali, we will construct an understanding of hypocephali that bears no resemblance to the ancient Egyptian understanding. We will, in short, not understand [hypocephali] at all.

In 2002, Michael D. Rhodes, Associate Research Professor in the Department of Ancient Scripture at Brigham Young University published "The Hor Book of Breathings - A Translation and Commentary" which contains full color and grey-scale photographs of Joseph Smith Papyri I. X, and XI along with English translations of the heiroglyphics. Rhodes states:

"The Hor Book of Breathings is a part of eleven papyri fragments... from three separate papyri scrolls. Joseph Smith Papyri I, X, and XI are from the Book of Breathings belonging to Hor (Hr) the son of Usirwer. Joseph Smith Papyri II, IV, V, VI, VII, and IX all came from a Book of the Dead belonging to Tshemmim (Ts-sri.t Min.), the daughter of Eskhons (Ns-Hnsw). Finally, Joseph Smith Papyrus III is part of Chapter 125 of the Book of the Dead belonging to Neferirtnub (Nfr-ir(.t)-nbw).

The Joseph Smith Papyrus fragment containing Facsimile No. 1 has three sections. Klaus Baer was the first person to publish a translation of the writing flanking the original of Facsimile No. 1. His translation is as follows:

... the prophet of Amonrasonter, prophet [?] of Min Bull-of-his-Mother, prophet [?] of Khons the Governor... Hor, justified, son of the holder of the same titles, master of secrets, and purifier of the gods Osorwer, justified [?]... Tikhebyt, justified. May your ba live among them, and may you be buried in the West...May you give him a good, splendid burial on the West of Thebes just like ...

Hor is the name of the mummified deceased and Tikhebyt is the name of Hor’s mother. The ba is his spirit. Updated translations consistent with Klaus Baer have been provided by others including BYU Professor Michael D. Rhodes, BYU Egyptologist, John Gee, and another University of Chicago Egyptologist, Robert K. Ritner.

The lower middle section of the Joseph Smith Papyrus fragment Facsimile No. 1 was initially translated by Richard Parker of Brown University. His translation is as follows:

this great pool of Khonsu [Osiris Hor, justified], born of Taykhebyt, a man likewise. After (his) two arms are [fast]ened to his breast, one wraps the Book of Breathings, which is with writing both inside and outside of it, with royal linen, it being placed (at) his left arm near his heart, this having been done at his wrapping and outside it. If this book be recited for him, then he will breathe like the soul[s of the gods] for ever and ever.

Translations of this section have also been made by Baer, Nibley, and Ritner and they are consistent with Parker's.

For the third section, Klaus Baer noted that Hor’s Book of Breathings would end with Facsimile No. 3, however the vignette is missing or lost in the original papyrus. Using Facsimile No. 3, the following translation was made by Robert K. Ritner.

Label for Osiris (text to the right of figure 1 of facsimile 3):

Recitation by Osiris, Foremost of the Westerners, Lord of Abydos(?), the great god forever and ever(?).

Label for Isis (text to the right of figure 2 of facsimile 3):

Isis the great, the god's mother.

Label for Maat (text to the left of figure 4 of facsimile 3):

Maat, mistress of the gods.

Label for Hor the deceased (text in front of figure 5 of facsimile 3):

The Osiris Hor, justified forever.

Label for Anubis (text in front of figure 6 of facsimile 3):

Recitation by Anubis, who makes protection(?), foremost of the embalming booth,...

Invocation (text at bottom line below the illustration):

O gods of the necropolis, gods of the caverns, gods of the south, north, west, and east grant salvation to the Osiris Hor, the justified, born by Taikhibit.

The link of Facsimile No. 3 with Facsimile No. 1 and the papyrus scroll is established by the correlation of the name of the deceased, Hor and the name of his mother, Taikhibit . Another translation of Facsimile No. 3 has been made by Rhodes which is consistent with Ritner's.

Criticism and Response

The arguments concerning the Book of Abraham primarily concern the source of the text of the Book of Abraham, Joseph Smith's method of "translation" and his explanations of the meanings of the vignettes. Currently there is little argument concerning the transliteration of the Egyptian writing on the fragments, as evidenced by the broad agreement in the translations by LDS and non LDS Egyptologists. Critics primarily use inerrancy and identification of texts as their primary arguments against the Book of Abraham's authenticity;

  • Transliterated text from the recovered papyri and facsimiles published in the Book of Abraham contain no direct references, either historical or textual, to Abraham. Rather, they parallel other texts from the Egyptioan Book of the Dead and Book of Breathings.
  • Abraham's name does not appear anywhere in the papyri or the facsimiles.
  • Joseph Smith’s explanation of the facsimiles and translation (as contained in the BoA text) does not parallel Egyptologists' transliterations or explanations of the text or images on the papyri.
  • The Joseph Smith Papyri have been dated to the late Ptolemaic or early Roman period, 1500 years after Abraham’s supposed lifetime. Critics feel this is relevant because of Joseph Smith's statement that the papyri were "written by [Abraham's] own hand upon papyrus."
  • Anachronisms exist in the Book of Abraham which indicate that it was not written in Abraham’s time.
  • The "Egyptian Alphabet and Grammar", also known as the "Kirtland Egyptian Papers", contain an arrangement of correlated characters from the papyri and text from the Book of Abraham that some critics suggest indicates that the Book of Abraham text came entirely from the existing papyrus fragments.

A number of theories have been presented in defense of the official LDS Church position that the work is a revelation from God, through Joseph Smith, which tells a true story of actual events from the life of Abraham;

  • There are dozens of unique thematic elements of the Book of Abraham story which to which parallels are drawn from extra-biblical traditions. These elements are argued to have been unavailable to Joseph Smith.
  • At least two demotic papyri discovered in Thebes in the 1800s contain images that associate the name Abraham with a lion couch and the Wedjat eye of Horus, as depicted in Facsimiles, No.1 and No. 2.
  • Joseph Smith's explanations of one element of facsimile 2 parallels Egyptian ritual themes which are symbolicaly expressed in the images. This parallel is disputed by Egyptologist Stephen E. Thompson.
  • The remaining papyrus fragments are only part of the complete original papyri, or the fragments may have been a starting point for reconstruction. Critics argue that Facsimile No. 1 matches the vignette in the existing papyrus and that there is a direct textual reference to it in the Book of Abraham.
  • The papyri may be copies of an original which was written personally by Abraham. At least one Egyptian scroll from the same time period as the JSP contains the name of Abraham.
  • Joseph Smith translated the documents by revelation, rather than a standard "translation" of text from one language to another, in a process similar to his translation of the Bible. Critics assert that the “Egyptian Alphabet and Grammar” indicates that Smith did attempt a direct, literal, comprehensive, translation. Critics interpret Smith's statements to mean that the Book of Abraham is a conventional translation of an original handwritten manuscript and not a revelation.
  • The facsimiles in Egyptian funerary scrolls may have been a mnemonic device.
  • The facsimiles were not penned by Abraham, but by a Jewish redactor many centuries later.

Book of Joseph

As noted above, a second untranslated work was identified by Joseph Smith after scrutinizing the original papyri. He noted that one scroll contained "the writings of Joseph of Egypt". Based on descriptions by Oliver Cowdery, some, including Charles M. Larson, believe that the fragments Joseph Smith II, IV, V, VI, VII, and VIII are the source of this work.

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