Ch 2: The Book of Abraham

There is not one thing that led me out of the church.

Rather, it was the accumulation of facts that led me to observe that Joseph Smith was untrustworthy as a man. Nothing proves Joseph Smith a fraud more than the Book of Abraham.

The Book of Abraham has been proven a false translation. When I say “proven,” I mean that there are people in neither the LDS camp nor the “anti-Mormon” camp (and in both camps) who are scientists that have verified that what Joseph Smith claimed with regards to the Book of Abraham is false.

Unlike the Book of Mormon, we do have the original documents Joseph Smith used to “translate” the Book of Abraham and unfortunately for Joseph, we can now decipher these writings. This was not possible in Joseph Smith’s day so he felt safe in deciphering the papyri any way he saw useful.

In July of 1835, an Irishman named Michael Chandler brought an exhibit of four Egyptian mummies and papyri to Kirtland Ohio. The papyri contained Egyptian hieroglyphics, which intrigued the prophet Joseph Smith. As prophet and seer of the Church, Joseph was given permission to look at the papyri scrolls in the exhibit, upon which he pronounced a marvelous discovery:

“…with W. W. Phelps and Oliver Cowdery as scribes, I commence 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. Truly we can say, the Lord is beginning to reveal the abundance of peace and truth.” (History of the Church, Vol. 2, p. 236).

Wilford Woodruff recorded in his diary on February 19, 1842 that the Book of Abraham was literally written by Abraham himself. This would make the Book of Abraham the only existing original copy of a scriptural book. It would also date the record of Abraham (about 2,000 B.C.) to some 500 years prior to the Book of Genesis believed by Mormons to be authored by Moses, between 1440-1400 B.C.

The Book of Abraham is believed by the LDS church to have been written by Abraham himself, as shown in the preface to the Book of Abraham.

With the later discovery of the Rosetta Stone, however, it finally became possible for scholars to decipher the Egyptian language. After many years of studying the Rosetta Stone and other examples of ancient Egyptian writing, Jean-François Champollion deciphered hieroglyphs by recognizing that it was written in three languages (hieroglyphic, demotic and Greek). Knowing Greek, he was able to decipher the messages in Egyptian.

LDS scholars don’t even refute this point. Egyptian can be read. As a Mormon I didn’t know this.

Once Egyptian was deciphered, this enabled the experts to objectively evaluate Joseph’s translation of the papyri. The papyri themselves were thought to have been destroyed in the “Great Chicago Fire” in 1871. However, Egyptologists could still study the three Facsimiles included in the Book of Abraham as well as Joseph’s translation of these Facsimiles. M. Theodule Deveria of the Louvre in Paris performed the first such study. Deveria recognized the three Facsimiles as common Egyptian funerary documents and concluded that Joseph’s interpretations of the Facsimiles were nonsense.

In 1912, Reverend Franklin S. Spalding sent copies of the three Facsimiles from the Book of Abraham to some of the world’s leading scholars of Egyptology. All eight of the scholars that responded were unanimous in their condemnation of Joseph’s translations as being incorrect. For example, Dr. Arthur Mace, Assistant Curator for the Department of Egyptian Art of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York explained:

“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 of the clumsiness of the imposture.” (F.S. Spalding, Joseph Smith Jr., As a Translator, 1912, p. 27)

Dr. James H. Breasted of the Haskell Oriental Museum, University of Chicago, declared:

“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 fact-similes 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 fact-similes 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…

Fact-simile Number 2 represents a little disc…commonly called among Egyptologists a hypocephalus…These did not come into use until the late centuries just before the Christian era. They did not appear in any Egyptian burials until over a thousand years after the time of Abraham. They were unknown in Egypt in Abraham’s day.

Fact-simile Number 3…This scene again is depicted innumerable times in the funeral papyri, coffins and tomb and temple walls of Egypt. No representation of it thus far found in Egypt, though we have thousands of them, dates earlier than 500 years after Abraham’s age; and it may be stated as certain that the scene was unknown until about 500 years after Abraham’s day.” (Ibid., pp. 24-27)

Thus, based on the evidence provided by the Facsimiles alone, scholars overwhelmingly concurred that Joseph’s translation of these Facsimiles was incorrect. Further, it was determined that Abraham could not have possessed these Facsimiles because at least in the case of Nos. 2 and 3, they did not exist until long after Abraham’s day.

Every detail of Joseph’s interpretation was incorrect.

Another piece of the puzzle fell into place in 1938, when Dr. Sidney Sperry allowed the publication of portions of Joseph’s Egyptian Alphabet and Grammar. The Grammar was a working document used by Joseph and his scribes during the translation of the Book of Abraham. Sperry had discovered the Grammar three years prior in the official church history vault, where apparently they were deposited in 1855 and forgotten about. The Grammar quickly proved to be a problem for the LDS church, and it is understandable why they were hesitant to publish it themselves.

Professional Egyptologists again went to work examining the Grammar, and quickly concluded that it bore no resemblance to any correct understanding of the Egyptian language. For example, I. E. Edwards stated that it was:

“…largely a piece of imagination and lacking in any kind of scientific value…[and reminded me of] the writings of psychic practitioners which are sometimes sent to me.” (Letter of I. E. Edwards, Keeper of the Department of Egyptian Antiquities, June 9, 1966)

In 1966 the original papyri were rediscovered in one of the vault rooms of the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art. On Nov. 27, 1967 the Salt Lake City Deseret News announced that the papyri had been presented to the LDS church. On the back of the papyri were drawings of a temple and maps of the Kirtland, Ohio area. It was also noticed that Facsimile No. 1 from the Book of Abraham was identical to the facsimile found in one of the papyri scrolls.

All told, 12 papyrus fragments were discovered. By piecing the fragments together, it was determined that the papyri constituted two original scrolls. Egyptologists concluded that the Book of Abraham scroll was in fact known as the Book of Breathings and could be dated to the time of Christ, or approximately 2,000 years later than the time of Abraham. The Book of Breathings consisted of instructions along with a series of magic spells to be recited by the spirit of the corpse after burial, in order to teach itself to “breathe,” and thus prepare for its existence in the afterlife. There was no indication of Abraham whatsoever in the scroll.

At that time it was also possible to compare the Book of Abraham papyrus with the Grammar that had been published that same year. It was found that the Book of Abraham papyrus began with Facsimile No. 1 and was immediately followed by Egyptian. These Egyptian figures matched identically, and in order, the figures in the left column of the translation manuscripts. The same Egyptian characters in all three manuscripts correspond to identical passages of adjacent text, indicating a deliberate juxtaposition with the text of the translation manuscript. In addition, where there were tears and missing sections in the papyrus, contrived non-Egyptian figures were written next to certain passages in the manuscripts. This provided further evidence that these papyri were in fact the originals used by Joseph to create the Book of Abraham. More importantly, it demonstrated that Joseph’s translation of the Book of Abraham text could not possibly be correct, since the Egyptian characters had absolutely nothing in common with the transcript text to which they were aligned, and the non-Egyptian characters were meaningless.

Regarding the LDS apologists claimed that Joseph was only constructing the Grammar for the purpose of translating additional papyri after completing the Book of Abraham, and that it was a “failed effort”, it is clear that this was not the case. In fact, Joseph was intimately involved with the creation of the Grammar and used it for inspiration during the translation process:

“This afternoon I labored on the Egyptian alphabet, in company with Brothers Oliver Cowdery and W.W. Phelps, and during the research, the principles of astronomy as understood by Father Abraham and the ancients unfolded to our understanding, the particulars of which will appear hereafter.” (History of the Church, vol. 2, p. 286)

The LDS church chose Hugh Nibley as the primary scholar to work on a sanctioned translation of the papyri. Nibley posited that the inconsistencies in the Facsimiles might have been due to errors by Reuben Hedlock, the Latter-day Saint who prepared the original woodcut engravings of the scenes in 1842. However, to do so Hedlock would have needed access to the papyri, as demonstrated by the blatant transposition of so many unrelated elements into the Facsimiles. It is unfathomable that Joseph would have permitted such creative license, and in fact journal entries show that he was directly involved in the process:

“Thursday, March 1, 1842 – During the forenoon I was at my office and the printing office, correcting the first plate or cut [note: this would be “Facsimile No. 1”] of the Records of Father Abraham prepared by Reuben Hedlock, for the Times and Seasons…” (History of the Church, Vol. 4, p. 519)

“Friday, March 4, 1842 – At my office exhibiting the Book of Abraham in the original to Brother Reuben Hedlock, so that he might take the size of the several plates or cuts, and prepare the blocks for the Times and Seasons; and also gave instructions concerning the arrangements of the writing on the large cut, illustrating the principles of astronomy [this would be Facsimile No. 2]…” (Ibid., p. 543)

In any case, the erroneous translations provided by Joseph demonstrate a blatant misunderstanding of the true meaning of the papyri. They also indicate that Joseph was more than willing to fabricate a false story of translation and set it up as religious truth.
Church apologist say that we have no evidence that Joseph Smith used those papyri in his translation:

 “One explanation is that it may have been taken from a different portion of the papyrus rolls in Joseph Smith’s possession. In other words, we don’t have all the papyri Joseph Smith had—and what we do have is obviously not the text of the book of Abraham.”(Michael D. Rhodes, “I Have a Question,” Ensign, July 1988, 51)

Yes, we do know which papyri Joseph used in his translation. We have his word. He even published his source in the Pearl of Great Price. If we can’t rely on his word that that’s how he translated them, then he again has proven himself untrustworthy.

Even though JS himself said he was “arranging” the Egyptian Grammar, the apologists ask me to disregard it since it wasn’t written primarily in his own hand. They then ask me to accept as true the 1838 version of the First Vision, even though that, like the grammar, was not written in his own hand.

Still, it’s obvious here that even LDS scholars admit that what we do have in no way matches Joseph’s “Book of Abraham.” To me, this fact set the stage for evaluating later truths I would uncover. Was I willing to give Joseph Smith the benefit of the doubt when he so clearly lied about the Book of Abraham?


*See the “Why I Left Mormonism” link in the menu above for the rest of the story.

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