In 1835, a traveling roadshow of Egyptian mummies and ancient scrolls arrived in Kirkland. Upon cursory inspection, Joseph Smith declared that the scrolls contained the literal writings of Abraham while he was in Egypt; while the other contained the writings of Joseph of Egypt. Smith instructed members to pool resources to purchase the scrolls, then spent the next seven years translating them into the Book of Abraham, accepted by members of the LDS Church as revealed scripture.
The discovery of the Rosetta Stone in 1799 facilitated accurate translations of the previously indecipherable Egyptian language. Several Egyptologists of varying pedigree have inspected Smith’s papyri, and each has consistently declared them to be common funerary text from the 4th century BCE. Joseph’s hand-embellished drawings on what are referred to as the facsimiles have also been proven incorrect.
The LDS Church now acknowledges in its Gospel Topics Essay that “none of the characters on the papyrus fragments mentioned Abraham’s name or any of the events recorded in the book of Abraham.” Similarly, the Church also altered the wording of the Pearl of Great Price introduction in 2013 to create room for an inspired narrative disconnected from the actual papyri Joseph clearly used.
More than any single item, the Book of Abraham stands as the most significant stumbling block to Joseph Smith’s claim as a prophetic translator of ancient languages. Of the numerous items Joseph claimed to translate, the Egyptian papyri are the only remaining physical object scholars can reliably evaluate.
Given Abraham’s prominence in Muslim and Jewish faiths, one might think that the Book of Abraham would be of great interest; yet both global religions totally disregard Smith’s work. Dr. Robert Ritner, Ph.D., Egyptologist, University of Chicago concisely sums up the LDS dilemma: “Except for those willfully blind, the case is closed.” Once again, Mormonism stands in proud isolation.
- Bill Reel provides a fantastic visual Summary of Book of Abraham challenges
ORIGIN OF SCROLLS
In July of 1835, an Irishman named Michael Chandler brought an exhibit of four Egyptian mummies and papyri containing Egyptian hieroglyphics to Kirtland Ohio, then the home of the Mormons. Hieroglyphics remained unreadable in 1835, as the recently discovered Rosetta Stone was still a work in progress. Joseph Smith was permitted to examine the scrolls, whereupon to everyone’s wonder, he revealed that “one of the rolls contained the writings of Abraham, another the writings of Joseph of Egypt” (History of the Church, vol 2: 236). As instructed, the members pooled together their money to purchase the papyri and mummies for $2,400 ($75,000 in 2018 dollars).
“The air of mystery and romance that has always surrounded things Egyptian has never failed to attract swarms of crackpots, cultists, half-baked scholars, self-certified experts, and out-and-out charlatans” (Collected Works Of Hugh Nibley: An Approach To The Book Of Abraham, vol 18).
Funerary texts, commonly referred to as the Books of Breathing, were regularly included in the burial of wealthy Egyptians to enable the deceased to continue to exist in the afterlife. The texts were laboriously copied by hand onto scrolls and often included the Breathing Permit of Hôr and abbreviated versions of Book of the Dead. The earliest known copy dates to about 350 BC, long after the era associated with Abraham. It would be unworkable for a later scribe to insert expanded Abrahamic language into the middle a longer scroll as the language and religious structure would not have aligned.
- Wiki: Books of Breathing
WHAT SMITH CLAIMED
In July 1835, Smith recorded in his journal, via scribe W. W. Phelps, “I was continually engaged in translating an alphabet of the Book of Abraham, and arranging a grammar of the Egyptian language…” (Book B-1, 597; History of the Church, 2:238).
After about 7 years, Joseph completed his translation of the scroll he claimed was a “translation of the Book of Abraham written by his own hand upon papyrus and found in the CataCombs of Egypt.” Smith again declared the papyrus to be the literal writings of Abraham, as reported in the Church newspaper, and he continued showing the relics until his death. Later, Smith identified the male mummy as King Onitas, and a female mummy as his daughter Princess Katumin.
It is interesting to note that Joseph used the white seer stone to translate the Egyptian papyri into the Book of Abraham, as opposed to the brown stone he used for the Book of Mormon (Early Mormonism and the Magic World View, 244). The Book of Joseph was never translated.
WHAT WE NOW KNOW
- “Joseph Smith’s interpretations of [the documents] 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. James H. Breasted, University of Chicago).
- ”It may be safely said that there is not one single word that is true in these explanations” (Dr. W.M. Flinders Petrie, London University).
- “It is difficult to deal seriously with Joseph Smith’s impudent fraud… Smith has turned the goddess [Isis in Facsimile No. 3] into a King and Osiris into Abraham” (Dr. A.H. Sayce, Oxford University).
When the Church asked Hugh Nibley to look into the rediscovered papyri, he sought the opinion of self-declared Egyptologist Dee Jay Nelson. Nibley went on to praise Dee Jay Nelson’s work in the spring 1968 volume of BYU Studies: “This is a conscientious and courageous piece of work…Nelson has been careful to consult top-ranking scholars…” Unfortunately, Nelson promptly informed Nibley that the papyri were standard funeral scripts.
“We have often been asked during the past months why we did not proceed with all haste to produce a translation of the [Book of Abraham] papyri the moment they came into our possession. Well, for one thing others are far better equipped to do the job than we are, and some of those early expressed a willingness to undertake it. But, more important, it is doubtful whether any translation could do as much good as harm” (Hugh Nibley, BYU Studies, Spring 1968, 251).
As evidence compounded against the Book of Abraham’s authenticity, the Church later denounced Nibley’s endeavor as self-directed and discredited Dee’s questionable credentials.
Additional Translation Problems
Joseph Smith also claims to have retranslated sections of the Bible. The discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in the mid 1940s provided the world with Hebrew manuscripts for the entire Old Testament that are 1,000 years earlier than any previously known. None of Smith’s changes have been supported by the numerous Old and New Testament manuscript finds since 1833.
Prominent believing historians like Richard Bushman have called Joseph’s work Pseudepigrapha, a genre of writing in which the author falsely attributes the work to another, typically ancient, writer.
- Richard Bushman, New Perspectives on Joseph Smith and Translation
In its Gospel Topics Essay: Historicity of the Book of Abraham, the Church suggests “The relationship of these documents to the book of Abraham is not fully understood” and introduces what scholars call a “catalyst theory” to hypothesize how created the text through revelation, being inspired by the papyri artifacts.
This catalyst argument is faulty, as Smith clearly believed the papyri to be authentic writings of Abraham, and relied upon them for many years to execute his translation. He even displayed the papyri and mummies for visitors to examine.
The greatest challenging to the catalyst theory is that it directly contradicts Joseph’s own words: “Joseph the Seer has presented us some of the Book of Abraham which was written by his own hand but hid from the knowledge of man for the last four thousand years but has now come to light through the mercy of God” (Journal of Wilford Woodruff).
In its 2013 update of the standard works, the Church altered the introduction of the Pearl of Great Price. The previous description of the Book of Abraham read, “A translation from some Egyptian papyri that came into the hands of Joseph Smith in 1835, containing writings of the patriarch Abraham.” The modified description creates ambiguity regarding the origin and nature of the text. “An inspired translation of the writings of Abraham. Joseph Smith began the translation in 1835 after obtaining some Egyptian papyri.”
The original heading from the Phelps and Parrish copy of the manuscript stated, ”Translation of the Book of Abraham written by his own hand upon papyrus and found in the Catacombs of Egypt.” The heading in the Book of Abraham today has been altered to separate “translation of some ancient records…the catacombs of Egypt” from ”The writings of Abraham.”
Some defenders of the authenticity of the Book of Abraham assert that the description in the Phelps and Parrish manuscript was their personal understanding of the papyrus, not Smith’s. They reference the 1842 Times and Seasons publication of the heading which is much closer to what’s published today, which reads: ”A translation of some ancient records that have fallen into our hands, from the Catecombs of Egypt, purporting to be the writings of Abraham, while he was in Egypt, called the Book of Abraham, written by his own hand, upon papyrus.” They argue that Joseph Smith approved the Times and Seasons description, but not necessarily the statement in the Phelps and Parrish manuscript. But if one reads farther into the Times and Seasons description, we see that this apparent “catalyst” is still identified as “the writings of Abraham.”
Another argument is that the original papyri scrolls must have been much longer than existing fragments, and must surely contain the text Joseph translated. The theory lacks both evidence and credibility.
PLAUSIBLE ORIGINS OF BOOK OF ABRAHAM
The content of the Book of Abraham, which Joseph worked on for seven years, is essentially 100% accounted for by his use of five 19th Century sources. The books were readily available to Joseph in the Nauvoo library.
The evidence is thoroughly detailed in An Insiders View of Mormon Origins, Chapter 1.
- Abraham 1; Facsimile 1, 3:
Abraham’s biographical information in Abraham 1 and Smith’s claim of what these two Facsimiles portray comes from The Works of Flavius Josephus. Smith owned an 1830 edition of this book. Smith’s detailed explanations for the individual Egyptian characters on these two Facsimiles in the Book of Abraham have been thoroughly discredited by Egyptologists.
- Abraham 2, 4-5:
Eighty-six percent of the verses in these three chapters came from Genesis, 1, 2, 12, and 11:28-29. The scribal errors indicate that this material came from a 1769 or later printing of the KJV Bible.
- Abraham 3; Facsimile 2:
This text shares a remarkable resemblance to the astronomical concepts, phrases, and other motifs found in Thomas Dick’s, Philosophy of a Future State. Smith owned an 1830 copy of Dick’s book.
- Abraham 3; Facsimile 2:
Thomas Taylor’s 1816 book, The Six Books of Proclus on the Theology of Plato, especially volume 2, contains most of the motifs in Abraham 3 and Facsimile 2. Dick and Taylor both contain a number of exact phrases found in Abraham 3 and Facsimile 2. Importantly, Smith’s Newtonian astronomy concepts, mechanics, and model of the universe that he borrowed from these Newtonian books have been thoroughly discredited by Einstein’s twentieth-century model of the universe.
- Strange Names:
The few Hebrew names and phrases found in the Book of Abraham reflect Smith’s study with Hebrew scholar Joshua Seixas during the winter of 1835-36, in Ohio (An Insiders View of Mormon Origins, Palmer).
In 1758, Swedish mystic Emanuel Swedenborg wrote Heaven and Hell. Heaven and Hell is the common English title of a book, while the full title is Heaven and its Wonders and Hell From Things Heard and Seen. Swedenborg claimed numerous visions and wrote prolifically. His work describes 3 degrees of glory, even the “Celestial Kingdom” and how the three heavens correspond to the sun, moon and stars – naming them celestial, spiritual, and natural.
Michael Quinn makes a strong case that Smith knew all about Swedenborg’s ideas, while also demonstrating that his book was available in Smith’s hometown library since 1817. Quinn demonstrates that “Nine miles from Smith’s farm, in 1826, the Canandaigua newspaper advertised Swedenborg’s book for sale…for as little as 37 cents.” Joseph himself is known to have received a letter from faithful member Isaac Galland in 1839 which repeatedly mentions Swedenborg’s theology and influence at the time.
- 3 levels of heaven, 3 heavens in the Celestial Kingdom
- The 3 kingdoms are like sun, moon, stars
- One must be married in heaven to inherit the highest heaven
- The spirit world is a place of preparation for either heaven or perdition
- The world of spirits is a preparation for either heaven or perdition
- There are angels who communicate between heavens
- The church that Christ established has passed from the Earth
- The Lord will establish a New Church on the earth once more
- Little children who die, Christian or not, go directly to heaven, and are not culpable
- Opposition in all things
- Man is not saved by faith alone but must show works from a changed heart
- One way to qualify for perdition is to know the truth and deny it
- Celestial beings incorporate the law of consecration into their lives
- All things in the physical world exist due to existence of a spiritual quality
- God is man
- Christ redeems the world, but there is no vicarious payment for the sins of others
- Swedenborg witnessed marriage ceremony in heaven, husband wore robes like those of Aaron, wife was arrayed as a queen
- Did Emanuel Swedenborg Influence LDS Doctrine?, Sunstone, Craig Miller, Jan 2002 (full text here)
- Isaac Galland letter to Joseph Smith, July 24, 1839
Origin of Telestial
The word telestial exists only in Mormon theology and is not found anywhere else. Smith wrote D&C 76 in 1832 as he was exploring new theologies. Smith likely relied upon 1st Corinthians 15:41, wherein Paul speaks about the sun, moon, and stars when developing the unique Mormon doctrine of differing degrees of heavenly glory. Following Swedenborg’s well-known theology, he needed three levels of heaven and only had two.
However, even a cursory reading of 1 Cor 15:40 reveals that the verse has nothing to do with degrees of heaven; it merely speaks to the difference between heavenly (celestial) bodies and earthly (terrestrial) bodies. This is further evidenced by the fact that only the KJV Bible uses the words celestial and terrestrial, while every other English translation uses heavenly and earthly. The verse is simply stating that angels and mortals have different degrees of splendor.
The Book of Abraham constitutes a theological justification for the LDS Church’s long-standing racial discrimination against blacks, now admitted by the Church to be error and mere policy – even though it was considered doctrine until 1978. The lifting of the race ban, as well as the Church’s Race and The Priesthood essay, effectively repudiate standing Book of Abraham doctrine.
The LDS essay Historicity of the Book of Abraham presents a number of problematic arguments and citations taken out of context. Above all, critics take exception to the Church’s use of a seemingly positive citation from Warren Parish’s letter to the Editor of the Painesville Republican in February of 1838. “I have set by his side and penned down the translation of the Egyptian hieroglyphics as he claimed to receive it by direct inspiration of Heaven…” Taken out of context, the clipped quote implies that Smith’s trusted scribe was reminiscing on his faithful labors.
What are we to make of Parish’s actually message in that letter to the editor? William was very clearly chastising Joseph Smith and Sidney Rigdon, for “Their management in this place has reduced society to a complete wreck.” He is not ambiguous in stating, “…having a knowledge of their private characters and sentiments, I believe them to be confirmed infidels, who have not the fear of God before their eyes, notwithstanding their high pretensions to holiness.” Parish further asserted that “For the past year their (Joseph Smith and Sidney Rigdon) lives have been one continued scene of lying, deception, and fraud, and that too in the name of God.”
Learn More: (Read the full William Parrish letter HERE)
- LDS Gospel Topics Essay – Translation & Historicity of Book of Abraham
- The Joseph Smith Papyri – Great video explaining things
- Problems with the Book of Abraham, Bill Reel
- Missing Scrolls, Catalyst Theories, and Bad Apologetics Part 1 – Radio Free Mormon: 049
- Truth of Book of Abraham Part 1, Dan Vogel
- Truth of Book of Abraham Part 2, Dan Vogel
- Truth of Book of Abraham Part 3, Dan Vogel
- Truth of Book of Abraham Part 4, Dan Vogel
- Truth of Book of Abraham Part 5, Dan Vogel
- Truth of Book of Abraham Part 6, Dan Vogel
- Dialogue: The Joseph Smith Egyptian Papyri, 1967
- The Joseph Smith Papers, Book of Abraham Manuscript
- MormonThink – Book of Abraham Issues
- Robert Ritner Responds to LDS Abraham Essay
- LDS Church is True: http://www.churchistrue.com/book-of-abraham/
- Cherry picking False Warren Parish Testimony
- Exploring Mormonism, The Man who Wrote LDS Abraham Essay
- Lost Book of Abraham Video
- History of the Church - https://byustudies.byu.edu/history-of-the-church
- Early Mormonism and the Magic World View, D. Michael Quinn
- Swedenborg Foundation
- Joseph’s Plagiarism in Book of Mormon and Other Revelations
- Did Emanuel Swedenborg Influence LDS Doctrine?
- Times and Seasons Vol. 3, No. 9, March 1, 1842
- Feb 1968 Improvement Era – New Light on Smith’s Papyri
- New York Times, Museum Walls Proclaim Fraud, 1912
- Philosophies of a Future State (vol. 1 & 2)