BOOK OF ABRAHAM

A Closer Look

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Papyrus Found

CES Letter Core Question

Joseph described the Book of Abraham as being written "by his own hand, upon papyrus." Was he mistaken about the papyri he had in hand?

Originally, Joseph claimed that this record was written by Abraham “by his own hand, upon papyrus” – a claim still prominent in the heading of the Book of Abraham. This claim could not be evaluated for decades as many thought the papyri were lost in a fire. The original papyrus Joseph translated has since been found and, as stated in the Church’s July 2014 Translation and Historicity of the Book of Abraham essay, “scholars have identified the papyrus fragments as parts of standard funerary texts...[that] date to between the third century B.C.E. and the first century C.E., long after Abraham lived.”

We know this is the papyrus that Joseph used for translation because the hieroglyphics match in chronological order to the hieroglyphics in Joseph’s Kirtland Egyptian Papers, which contains his Grammar & Alphabet of the Egyptian Language (GAEL). Additionally, the papyrus were pasted onto paper which have drawings of a temple and maps of the Kirtland, Ohio area on the back and they were companied by an affidavit by Emma Smith verifying they had been in the possession of Joseph Smith.


CES Letter, Page 37

This phrase "written by his own hand, upon papyrus" is an introduction written in the second person. It's not part of the core body of the Book of Abraham which opens with first person "I Abraham." (Abraham 1:1). There is some debate over whether the introduction is a 19th century editorial note reflecting the views of Joseph Smith and his contemporaries or possibly an ancient scribe that was employed to recount Abraham’s adventures in the first person. There is space for believing members to accept either view. Stephen Smoot discusses this in greater depth in his post "By His Own Hand, Upon Papyrus": Another Look.

The introduction the the Book Abraham first appears in the 1835 manuscript and then is elaborated upon in the 1842 manuscript.

The 1835 manuscript, found here, provides the following introduction to the Book of Abraham in the handwriting of W.W. Phelps:

Translation of the Book of Abraham written by his own hand upon papyrus and found in the CataCombs of Egypt

The 1842 printers manuscript, found here, provides the following introduction to the Book of Abraham in the handwriting of Willard Richards. Notice how the introduction by Richards is more tentative and describes the records as "purporting to be the writings of abraham."

"A. Translation of Some ancient Records that have fallen into our hands, from the Catacombs 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,"

Believing church members who are inclined to believe the Book of Abraham was translated from a portion of the papyri now missing can ascribe to the idea that this introduction could have been written by a second century scribe.

For those who see the introduction as a reflection of Joseph Smith and his 19th century contemporaries there is also space for belief. As discussed above, the 1842 introduction describes the papyri as "purporting" to be the writings of Abraham. Thus, leaving space for error. Stephen Smoot further elaborates:

“what if the phrase “by his own hand, upon papyrus” was not a part of the ancient title of the Book of Abraham, and instead is a modern component of the text?... there is some evidence that suggests Joseph Smith and the early Saints did believe the papyri they purchased in 1835 was as old as Abraham… Doesn’t the fact that he had incorrect assumptions, even about the scriptures he produced, cast doubt on his prophetic abilities?” The answer to this question depends on one’s assumptions about the nature of prophets. If one assumes that prophets must be perfect or infallible in order to be prophets, then the fact that Joseph Smith may have had faulty assumptions or incorrect beliefs becomes problematic."

Stephen Smoot, "By His Own Hand, Upon Papyrus": Another Look

Common Pagan Funerary Text

CES Letter Core Question

What does Joseph mean when he uses the term "translation"?

Egyptologists have also since translated the source material for the Book of Abraham and have found it to be nothing more than a common pagan Egyptian funerary text for a deceased man named “Hor” around first century C.E. In other words, it was a common Breathing Permit that the Egyptians buried with their dead. It has nothing to do with Abraham or anything Joseph claimed in his translation for the Book of Abraham. The Church admits this in its essay:

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.


CES Letter, Page 37

The CES Letter ignores the fact that Joseph Smith never claimed to translate like modern translators.  Joseph didn't use the term "translation" to describe an academic activity. Rather translation can be better thought of as revelation or inspiration. The Gospel Topics essay added this insight on Joseph and translation of the Book of Abraham:

Many people saw the papyri, but no eyewitness account of the translation survives, making it impossible to reconstruct the process. (see JSP note 21) 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.

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...

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.”...

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.

Translation and Historicity of the Book of Abraham

Richard Bushman provides the following insight into Joseph's translation of the Book of Abraham:

What was going on while Joseph "translated" the papyri and dictated text to a scribe? Obviously, he was not interpreting the hieroglyphics like an ordinary scholar. As Joseph saw it, he was working by inspiration--that had been clear from the beginning. When he "translated" the Book of Mormon, he did not read from the gold plates; he looked into the crystals of the Urim and Thummim or gazed at the seerstone. The words came by inspiration, not by reading the characters on the plates. By analogy, it seemed likely that the papyri had been an occasion for receiving a revelation rather than a word-for-word interpretation of the hieroglyphs as in ordinary translations. Joseph translated Abraham as he had the characters on the gold plates, by knowing the meaning without actually knowing the plates' language. Warren Parish, his clerk, said, "I have set be his side and penned down the translation of the Egyptian Heiroglyphicks as he claimed to receive it by direct inspiration of heaven."

Richard L. Bushman, Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005), 290-293

Michael Ash provides the following insight into Joseph's translation process:

While it may seem strange to think that Joseph Smith could receive a revealed translation of an ancient text that might not have been in his hands during the translation process, we could point to other instances where this exact thing happened. When Joseph “translated” the Bible for the JST, for example, he didn’t have any original Bible manuscripts in his hands. Likewise, when he dictated the Book of Moses, the text was revealed without so much as a hint of Joseph having access to an ancient document. Section 7 of the Doctrine and Covenants was translated from an ancient parchment written by the Apostle John. Did Joseph have the parchment in his hand? Nope, he saw it in revelation. This realization opens the door for one or more options in understanding the Book of Abraham.

Bamboozled by the CES Letter, p. 51-52

Historian Michael Quinn had the following to say about Joseph's use of the term "translation" of the Book of Mormon.  A similar description can be applied to the translation of the Book of Abraham. See below:

I believe that he was a translator in the way that he defined translation which he also applied to his revelatory revision of the Bible.  He never went back the Latin text, the Greek text, the Hebrew texts that existed that he could have gone back to. He translated instead the Bible as he called it as a revelatory act. That's how he translated the Book  of Mormon. He looked in a hat. He had the seer stone and he dictated the translation. It was an act of revelation. It wasn't translation in the way that we define... That was how people defined translation. I quoted in my analysis of the Book of Mormon what the American Encyclopedia at the time published in 1898. Which was really based upon the Encyclopedia Brittanica, defined translation not as word for word but as keeping the spirit of the original. Keeping the general meaning of the originial. That was the meaning of the translation that Joseph Smith had."

For further reading on Joseph's use of the term translation please click here.

CES Letter Core Question

Joseph's description of Facsimilies 1-3 doesn't match what most Egyptologists describe it.  Why is that?

The idea that Joseph's description of Facsimiles 1-3 isn't anything new. In the Gospel Topics Essays the Church said, "Mormon and non-Mormon Egyptologists agree that the characters on the fragments do not match the translation given in the Book of Abraham."

The reason why there is a difference between how Joseph used the Facsimilies and the Egyptologists is a matter of debate. There are different theories. Critics typically point at the facsimilies and say 'this is an example of where Joseph Smith was a fraud.' Some LDS scholars have speculated the facsimilies are a 19th century insertion, while others see them as interpretations of how second century Jews may or Abraham himself may have originally rendered those facsimilies. All different ways of using those diagrams in non-Egyptological and unconventional ways.

Richard Bushman provided a possible alternative that serves as a middle-ground between LDS and non-LDS perspectives. See here:

What is so horrible about the Book of Abraham? People say well it's the facts; the fact that the text of Book of Abraham does not conform to what Egyptian scholars say is in the content of those scrolls.  So you say obviously Joseph Smith was wrong, he was pretending, he faked the whole thing.  But, in my opinion, what we're really saying is that Joseph Smith didn't know what was on that text. The text itself is quite remarkable.  The Book of Abraham’s history that’s in our scriptures is an incredible document and strangely like other Abrahamic texts from antiquity.  So it holds up pretty well. What doesn't hold up this fact that Joseph Smith thought he had the writings of Abraham any he very well probably didn't have writing of Abraham.

So the question is not the fact about whether he was right or wrong but was he himself misled himself? And then it becomes a theological question.  Would God allow a prophet, to whom he wishes to give a revelation, to misunderstand what the scrolls were that he had in his hand?  Some people say it's impossible that God would deceive his prophet but others would say the aim of the Lord was to get this revelation out and the fact that Joseph Smith didn't understand what he had is not this particularly disruptive.  Lots of prophets don't really understand.  Probably lots of us don't understand lots of things about our lives. So that's I why I say if you go right into the heart of the problem in many cases it gets down to a theological or moral issue rather than a factual one.  Once you've stated that problem, would God let his prophet misunderstand something? Then I think you've got to the heart of the matter.

Rough Stone Rolling Interview - Richard Bushman 42:00 here

Facsimile Summary

The Gospel Topics essay addresses the Book of Abraham facsimiles in the following way: 

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.

Translation and Historicity of the Book of Abraham

Once again the point is made that Joseph Smith's interpretation of the facsimiles differs from that of modern Egyptologists. That has been acknowledged for decades. The significance of that difference remains unknown. Was Joseph "repackaging" the facsimiles to correspond with the revealed Book of Abraham, or is there some other explanation? Only by making certain assumptions can provisional conclusions be reached. (Click here)

Cosmology

CES Letter Core Question

Does the Book of Abraham teach an incorrect Newtonian view of the universe that later became outdated?

The Book of Abraham teaches an incorrect Newtonian view of the universe. These Newtonian astronomical concepts, mechanics, and models of the universe have since been succeeded and substantially modified by 20th century Einsteinian physics.

What we find in Abraham 3 and the official scriptures of the LDS Church regarding science reflects a Newtonian world concept. Just as the Catholic Church's Ptolemaic cosmology was displaced by the new Copernican and Newtonian world model, however, the nineteenth-century, canonized, Newtonian world view has since been displaced by Einstein's twentieth-century science.

Keith E. Norman, an LDS scholar, has written that for the LDS Church:

It is no longer possible to pretend there is no conflict.
Norman continues:
Scientific cosmology began its leap forward just when Mormon doctrine was becoming stabilized. The revolution in twentieth-century physics precipitated by Einstein dethroned Newtonian physics as the ultimate explanation of the way the universe works. Relativity theory and quantum mechanics, combined with advances in astronomy, have established a vastly different picture of how the universe began, how it is structured and operates, and the nature of matter and energy. This new scientific cosmology poses a serious challenge to the Mormon version of the universe.
Grant Palmer, a Mormon historian and CES teacher for 34 years, wrote:

Many of the astronomical and cosmological ideas found in both Joseph Smith’s environment and in the Book of Abraham have become out of vogue, and some of these Newtonian concepts are scientific relics. The evidence suggests that the Book of Abraham reflects concepts of Joseph Smith’s time and place rather than those of an ancient world.


CES Letter, Pages 46-47

The Book of Abraham does not teach modern cosmology, Newtonian or otherwise. Its cosmology fits nicely in the ancient Near East and has parallels to Egyptian and Israelite cosmology. (Click here)

Michael Ash provides the following insight:

the Book of Abraham teaches a geocentric view of the universe (a universe with the earth at the center). This is what ancient people would have believed and it is not what was believed in Joseph Smith’s day. The fact that the Book of Abraham does not teach a Newtonian view of the universe—which is what was believed in Joseph Smith’s day—is evidence in favor of the proposition that the book was translated from an ancient text.

Bamboozled by the CES Letter, p. 52

Keith Norman Quote

This quotation from Keith Norman is from Sunstone magazine 30 years ago. It is not authoritative, current, and is at best the author's opinion. It is a questionable assumption to believe the Book of Abraham intended to represent modern cosmology. (Click here)

Grant Palmer Quote

Grant Palmer's publications about Joseph Smith and plural marriage generate questions about his reliability. Any of Palmer's claims and conclusions would benefit from peer review or a secondary validation.  (Click here)

King James Version Text

CES Letter Core Question

Why is there 17th century King James Version English in the Book of Abraham? What does it say about the book being written anciently by Abraham?

86% of Book of Abraham chapters 2, 4, and 5 are King James Version Genesis chapters 1, 2, 11, and 12. Sixty-six out of seventy-seven verses are quotations or close paraphrases of King James Version wording. (See An Insider’s View of Mormon Origins, p.19)

If the Book of Abraham is an ancient text written thousands of years ago “by his own hand upon papyrus,” then what are 17th century King James Version text doing in there? What does this say about the book being anciently written by Abraham?


CES Letter, Page 47

The LDS Gospel Topics essay addresses this question here:

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.”

Translation and Historicity of the Book of Abraham

Anachronisms

CES Letter Core Question

Why are there anachronisms in the Book of Abraham? The terms Chaldeans, Egyptus, and Pharaoh are all anachronistic.

Why are there anachronisms in the Book of Abraham? For example, the terms Chaldeans, Egyptus, and Pharaoh are all anachronistic.


CES Letter, Page 47

 

Update coming

CES Letter Core Question

The Book of Abraham refers to the facsimiles in 1:12 and 14. Why would it reference facsimiles that didn't exist in Abraham's time and are standard pagan funerary documents?

Additionally, Abraham refers to the facsimiles in 1:12 and 1:14. However, as noted and conceded above in the Church’s essay, these facsimiles did not even exist in Abraham’s time as they are standard first century C.E. pagan Egyptian funerary documents.

Some have assumed that the hieroglyphs adjacent to and surrounding facsimile 1 must be a source for the text of the book of Abraham.

WHY WOULD ANYONE ASSUME THAT?

ABRAHAM 1:12
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.

CES Letter, Page 47-48

 

The facsimiles were already addressed earlier. Depending on ones view the reference to the facsimiles could be a 19th century insertion where Joseph re-purposed the diagrams under inspiration or they could be revelations of the diagrams as used at an earlier time by Jewish scribes or Abraham himself. The Gospel Topics essay addresses the Book of Abraham facsimiles in the following way: 

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.

Translation and Historicity of the Book of Abraham

John Gee is of the following opinion about the Book of Abraham's references to the facsimilies:

Since the papyri come from the Ptolemaic period, about 1,500 years after Abraham, the style of the pictures will not have been the same style as was current in Abraham’s day. Abraham may not have included any illustrations in his original account. The references to the facsimiles within the text of the Book of Abraham seem to have been nineteenth-century editorial insertions. The earliest manuscript we have shows that the phrase “I will refer you to the representation that is at the commencement of this record” from Abraham 1:12 was squished in two lines of smaller handwriting in the space at the end of the paragraph between Abraham 1:12 and 1:13. Similarly, Abraham 1:14 was added in a smaller hand squeezed into the margin at the top of the page, above the header, ignoring the ruled left margin. The Book of Abraham actually reads smoothly without these additions. Thus, these statements in the text seem to be nineteenth-century additions approved by, if not made by, Joseph Smith.

An Introduction to the Book of Abraham, John Gee

The picture below is an image of the squeezed text in Abraham 1:12 that Gee thinks is a 19th century addition. Whether or not the reason for the squeezed text is that it's an editorial insertion can be debated. It can be found in the Fredrick G. William's 1835 manuscript. Note, the lines in the image are not part of the original manuscript but are intended to better show the squeezed text.

Book of Abraham 1:12 Squeezed Text

Light from Kolob

CES Letter Core Question

Facsimile 2, Figure #5 states that the sun receives its "light from the revolutions of Kolob." This is in conflict with modern science. How can a book given by revelation teach incorrect views on science?

Facsimile 2, Figure #5 states the sun receives its “light from the revolutions of Kolob.” We now know, however, that the process of nuclear fusion is what makes the stars and suns shine. With the discovery of quantum mechanics, scientists learned that the sun’s source of energy is internal and not external. The sun shines because of thermonuclear fusion. The sun does not shine because it gets its light from any other star or any other external source.


CES Letter, Page 48

 

The Book of Abraham teaches a pre-scientific, mythical cosmology that may or may not always align with modern science. (Click here)

The Philosophy of a Future State

CES Letter Core Question

Parallelism Claim: Did Joseph Smith incorporate ideas from Thomas Dick's Philosophy of a Future State in the Book of Abraham?

There is a book published in 1829 by Thomas Dick entitled The Philosophy of a Future State. Joseph Smith owned a copy of the book and Oliver Cowdery quoted some lengthy excerpts from the book in the December 1836 Messenger and Advocate.

Klaus Hansen, an LDS scholar, stated:

The progressive aspect of Joseph’s theology, as well as its cosmology, while in a general way compatible with antebellum thought, bears some remarkable resemblances to Thomas Dick’s ‘Philosophy of a Future State’.

Hansen continues:

Some very striking parallels to Smith’s theology suggest that the similarities between the two may be more than coincidental. Dick’s lengthy book, an ambitious treatise on astronomy and metaphysics, proposed the idea that matter is eternal and indestructible and rejected the notion of a creation ex nihilo. Much of the book dealt with the infinity of the universe, made up of innumerable stars spread out over immeasurable distances. Dick speculated that many of these stars were peopled by ‘various orders of intelligences’ and that these intelligences were ‘progressive beings’ in various stages of evolution toward perfection. In the Book of Abraham, part of which consists of a treatise on astronomy and cosmology, eternal beings of various orders and stages of development likewise populate numerous stars. They, too, are called ‘intelligences.’ Dick speculated that ‘the systems of the universe revolve around a common centre...the throne of God.’ In the Book of Abraham, one star named Kolob ‘was nearest unto the throne of God.’ Other stars, in ever diminishing order, were placed in increasing distances from this center.


CES Letter, Page 48

 

There are far more differences between the teachings of Thomas Dick and Joseph Smith than there are similarities. (Click here)

This is yet another claim that textual similarities equate to influence or plagiarism. Correlation is not causation. Suspicions can be tested by simply reading the two texts.

Elder Holland BBC Interview

CES Letter Core Question

Should Elder Holland have been better able to explain the differences between Joseph Smith's explanations about the Book of Abraham and what Egyptologists say about it?

Elder Jeffrey R. Holland was directly asked about the papyri not matching the Book of Abraham in a March 2012 BBC interview:

Sweeney:Mr. Smith got this papyri and he translated them and subsequently as the Egyptologists cracked the code something completely different...
Holland:(Interrupts) All I’m saying...all I’m saying is that what got translated got translated into the word of God. The vehicle for that, I do not understand and don’t claim to know and know no Egyptian.
Is “I don’t know and I don’t understand but it’s the word of God” really the best answer that a “prophet, seer, and revelator” can come up with to such a profound problem and stumbling block that is driving many members out of the Church?

CES Letter, Page 49

 

This misrepresents Elder Holland's position on the Book of Abraham and places on him an unrealistic expectation that is disavowed by Church doctrine. (Click here)

CES Letter Core Question

Egyptologists say that Joseph Smith's Book of Abraham doesn't match how they interpret the papyri.

Egyptologists on the Book of Abraham

It is surprising The CES Letter would include these statements which are over 100 years old. Further details coming. (Click here)

Conclusion

The author of The CES Letter reports the Book of Abraham "is the smoking gun that obliterated [his] testimony." It is unfortunate that he embraced such a narrow understanding of Joseph Smith as a translator. Had he recognized that the Prophet never claimed to know what Egyptologists know, his expectations might not have exceeded reality. He might have been grateful for the revealed insights and patient with those things we do not now understand