The Joseph Smith Papyri [Book of Abraham]

If there is one thing that struck me at the recent British Pageant, its how much Mormons often don’t know about the history of their movement.

One of the more significant issues in Mormon history, is that a while ago much of the Papyri that Joseph Smith used to translate the Book of Abraham was found. The findings of this have been a life changing issue for many.

This is a really good video explaining that issue. I would really encourage anyone not aware of this to give this video a watch and have a think for yourself.

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9 Responses »

  1. “…how much Mormons often don’t know about the history of their movement.”

    I agree, it is a little sad. But don’t you think that Evangelical Christians by and large are oblivious to much of the history behind their own movement as well? Rather than it being a uniquely “Mormon” problem, I believe it is a problem that stems from a broader societal problem, namely that modern humans spend far less time reading, writing, and studying and far too much time lost in frivolous TV programs, music, etc.

    “…much of the papyri that Joseph Smith used to translate the Book of Abraham was found.”

    Most Mormons, who are somewhat read on this topic, would dispute that. A couple of the vignettes found in the BoA were found, but most Mormons would argue that the Egyptian documents that were recovered are not the source of the text of the Book of Abraham.

    • Matthew 16:18 – “And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it”.

      Our church history started with Jesus as he was the one that built it. We look at out church/ fellowship and see whether or not it agrees with the teachings of Jesus and the bible. The fact that a lot of people don’t know about the likes of Wesley, Wycliffe, Tyndale etc is actually not important, what is important is what Jesus taught as that is the church we are from. The problem for Mormons is that Joseph Smith claimed that God told him all other church where wrong (which is contrary to what Jesus said in Matthew 16:18). Mormon history is important because the message that Joseph Smith got from God was contrary to the bible. “Evangelical Christianity” history is not so important because we believe what has all ready been written, the fact that some belong to a Methodist church, some to a Baptist, some to an independent one is actually irrelevant we all believe the same important things.

      Jesus is the only God. (John 17:3, Eph 4:5, Ish 45:5)
      We are saved through grace, and Grace only. (Eph 2:4-5, 2 Corinthians 12:9, Galatians 2:21).

      Was Charles Spurgeon perfect – No.
      Was Charles Spurgeon a man of God – Yes because he proclaimed the word of God that we already had (the bible!), he did not claim to have revelation that contradicted the bible.

      Was Joseph Smith a perfect – No.
      Was Joseph Smith of God – No. Because his teachings contradicted the word of God, that is why we expose them.

      We test our churches/ fellowship history against the bible, not on “feelings as to whether it is true”.

    • Hey James good to know you still drop in from time to time.

      You said

      Most Mormons, who are somewhat read on this topic, would dispute that. A couple of the vignettes found in the BoA were found, but most Mormons would argue that the Egyptian documents that were recovered are not the source of the text of the Book of Abraham.

      Most Mormons probably have no idea what we are talking about, however you certainly do so I will go from there.

      “A Translation of some ancient Records, that have fallen into our hands from the catacombs of Egypt.—The writings of Abraham while he was in Egypt, called the Book of Abraham, written by his own hand, upon papyrus. See History of the Church 2:235, 236, 348- 35” (Introduction to Abraham 1).

      Yet in the BBC documentary when Jeffrey Holland was interviewed and asked about this did he not say it was more of a spiritual translation as appose to a direct physical one as stated above. Is the apologetic line now that they were not the right plates at all? I will have to research more into this as, as far as I was aware the platesfound match the descriptions of the plates used for translation in many ways is that not right?

      • Bobby,

        Just a few comments.

        1. I don’t know what Elder Holland said, or what he meant. I’ll pass on that one.

        2. The traditional view is that the Book of Abraham originated from the text of some ancient Egyptian scrolls. I point this out only to clarify that they were *scrolls*. You incorrectly refer to them as “plates” several times.

        3. There are basically two lines of thinking among Latter-day Saints interested in this topic. The first is that the scroll that Joseph Smith translated the Book of Abraham from has not been recovered. Joseph had in his possession at least five scrolls, but only some fragments from two of the scrolls has been recovered. Those fragments have been translated, and they are not the Book of Abraham. Therefore, the thinking goes, the Book of Abraham was on one of the scrolls which has not been recovered (likely perished in the great Chicago fire).

        The second line of thinking is that the Book of Abraham never existed on any of the scrolls in Joseph’s possession, but that Joseph believed they did and the scrolls acted as a catalyst for revelation. In this thinking, the Book of Abraham was given by pure revelation just as the Book of Moses was, with no actual connection to the scrolls in his possession, although Joseph may not have understood that. For this view, it is important to remember that Joseph never actually “translated” in the modern sense, he was rather receiving revelation from God of the translation.

        This is a quick summary of the two majors lines of thought in LDS circles. The issue obviously gets much more complex than that.


  2. Hi Jason. Thanks for your comments.

    1. Mormons, of course, also believe that their church started with Christ in the New Testament. We also look at our church and see if it fits with the teachings of the Bible. We simply have a very different interpretation of it than you do. We believe the Bible allows for, or even calls for, further revelation to prophets post-Biblical times. Where you see Latter-day Saint revelations as contradicting the Bible, I see them as expanding, clarifiying, and adding to the Biblical message. The Jews of Jesus’ day (and of today!) would argue that the message of the NT contradicts the OT, and yet you would argue that it merely expands, clarifies, and adds to that OT message.

    2. You suggest that the LDS claim that “all other churches are wrong” (not quite how I’d put it, but we won’t get sidetracked with that) is contrary to Matthew 16:18. I don’t think any Latter-day Saint would agree with you on that. We can get sidetracked debating this passage if you’d like, though neither of us are likely to change the others’ mind. The important thing again is that it all comes down to interpretation.

    3. I understand your point about the relative importance of a Mormon understanding the history of Mormonism, versus the importance of an Evangelical understanding the history of the Evangelical movement. I agree with you about that; a Mormon has a greater need to understand Mormon history than an Evangelical does to know Evangelical history.

    However, as you have defined the genesis of Evangelical Christianity (Jesus, the Bible, etc.) I still think that by and large fundamentalist Evangelical Christian knowledge is woeful. Consider how many Evangelicals know anything about questions of authorship in the NT (for example, the Pastoral epistles), or of the OT (for example, the Documentary Hypothesis or Isaiah). How many Evangelicals know anything about the secular arguments made against the resurrection of Christ, or of the existence of God? What about archaeological and historical issues pertaining to various stories in the Genesis-Judges? What do they know about how close Arianism came to winning the day?

    Please, please, please don’t respond with a lengthy rebuttal to those topics that I’ve just brought up. I don’t bring them up to debate them; I know you have your answers to them. I bring them up to simply illustrate that there are dozens of alleged problems (by critics of Christianity) that, if true, severely undermine Evangelical Christianity, and the vast majority of Evangelical Christians know nothing about those controversies. I bring this up only as a parallel to the situation with Mormons.

    Furthermore, in the limited time we get in our Sunday meetings we have a greater need to teach each other about faith, kindness, repentence, atonement, and God’s love than we do to teach about Book of Abraham issues, etc. Instead, we write books and articles and freely allow the saints to read them.

    4.Regarding the use of “feelings” to know if a thing is true or not, I think you know that it is much more complex than that. We are talking about the manifestation of the Holy Spirit to the individual, not simply “feelings”. Evangelical scholar/apologist William Craig has even argued quite strongly that subjective spiritual experience with God should have greater weight in our determination of truth than man’s ability to analyze logical or physical evidence.


  3. Hi James – “Please, please, please don’t respond with a lengthy rebuttal to those topics that I’ve just brought up. I don’t bring them up to debate them; I know you have your answers to them”………….am I allowed to respond at all?

    • Jason, I was speaking specifically about the secular challenges to Evangelical beliefs that I mentioned in the immediately previous paragraph. Of course I welcome your response to my general comments, I just didn’t want you to waste your time going down a road that is not relevant to our current discussion.

  4. James, the church has long admitted and confirmed that the papyri recovered are those used by Joseph Smith to translate the BOA. see Ensign, July 1988, Page 51
    Jeffrey Holland has been as very outspoken advocate of this official stance.
    The church is in possession of Joseph’s lexicon of translations from ancient Egyption in to colloquial American English in which page after page of the hieroglyphs copied in his own verifiable hand by the prophet, from said documents are are listed next to Joseph’s often very lengthy English translations of said glyphs again in his own verified hand writing..
    The drawings in the papyri and the drawings in the original translation text of the BOA match EXACTLY, they are in fact tracings with the missing portions of the illustration crudely and inaccurately restored from the well known funereal Ma’at myths of ancient Egypt, other copies of which exist most notably in Sir Ernest Alfred Thompson Wallis Budge’s translation of the Book of the Dead..
    The text of the recover papyri however when literally translated from Egyptian has no mention of Abraham and dates from an entirely different period in Egyptian dynastic history it is in fact a copy of the Book of Breathings, a common text found in many tombs of the Egyptian hierarchy.
    If Joseph, as you suggest as a second alternate explanation, simply used the papyri as an inspiration to translation, why did he claim it to be otherwise and to be an actual document written by the patriarch Abraham? If he believed this to be true why did he not pray about it and receive revelation as a prophet of God that he was mistaken?
    If Joseph simply used the papyri as an inspiration to translation, why did he trace and “RESTORE” the illustrations?

    Sorry James but these are all attested fact, not disputed by the church all open to public scrutiny.
    Your “quick summary of the two majors lines of thought in LDS circles” are just that, they are not factual or even theoretical and are certainly not LDS policy or doctrine. In actuality the nearest anyone in the church has ever come to declaring an actual stance on the translation of the BOA was the seemingly meaningless “In the final analysis, however, the proof of the truth of the book of Abraham does not come by human means.” from the same Ensign article quote earlier, since that time the church has made no official statement on this subject and has left the faithful to “make up” their own minds,

  5. Mr. Lions,

    Thank you for your comments. I hope you don’t mind if I make a few comments in reply. My aim is to keep this friendly, as I assume yours is as well.

    1. Your opening statement is that “the church has long admitted and confirmed that the papyri recovered are those used by Joseph Smith to translate the BOA”, and yet your concluding statement gives the exact opposite message, namely that “the church has made no official statement on the subject, and has left the faithful to ‘make up’ their own minds.” Unless I am missing something, you are not being consistent with your characterization of the LDS Church’s stance on the translation of the Book of Abraham. I don’t believe that the LDS Church has ever confirmed that the *extant* papyri are in fact the very documents from which Joseph Smith obtained his translation. I welcome any clarifying remarks you might have.

    2. Again, I’m not acquainted with Elder Holland’s remarks on the Book of Abraham (they frankly don’t interest me that much; his primary role is to testify of the truth of its message, not detail the scholarly aspects of it). I’m unaware of him ever describing in detail the church’s “official” endorsement of any particular theory of the Book of Abraham’s origin, other than that it is divinely inspired, and connected in some way to the papyri that Joseph Smith owned (not necessarily the fragments still extant). I’m happy to review his remarks, if you could give me a reference.

    3. Regarding your citation of the July 1988 Ensign, page 51, in a brief article by Egyptologist Michael Rhodes, I disagree with your assessment that, by that article, the church has “admitted and confirmed that the papyri recovered are those used by Joseph Smith to translate the BOA.” The closest Rhodes comes to this is identifying JSP I as being the origin for the Facsimile 1 in the Book of Abraham. That is an entirely separate question from the question of where the *text* or *translation* of the Book of Abraham came from. Rhodes explicitly rejects the idea that the extant papyri are the source for the translation of the Book of Abraham:

    “Abraham refers to a picture in the text of the Book of Abraham (Abr. 1:12), and this picture is presumed to be the one we call facsimile one; therefore, some people have concluded that this Book of Breathings must be the text Joseph Smith used in his translation of the Book of Abraham. However, there are some serious problems associated with this assumption…when one compares the text of the Book of Abraham with a translation of the Book of Breathings; they clearly are not the same.”

    Rhodes then goes on to summarize the two basic theories that I have outlined: the missing papyrus theory and the catalyst theory. So, contrary to your assertion, this article is not an admission that the extant Joseph Smith papyri are the source for the Book of Abraham, except for the Facsimile 1. Did you not really read the Rhodes article you are citing? I don’t know how you could have come away with the idea that Rhodes, and by extension the LDS Church (a leap which I reject, by the way) is claiming that the extant papyri is the source for the Book of Abraham.

    4. You seem to be referring to what is known as the “Kirtland Egyptian Papers”, also often referred to as the “Grammar and Alphabet of the Egyptian Language”. You can view high resolution color images of them on the LDS Church website here:

    You seem to imply that the Kirtland Egyptian Papers (KEP) were the original documents used by Joseph Smith to produce a “translation” of the Book of Abraham. Your conclusion is fraught with difficulties, for several reasons. First, (1) Joseph’s handwriting only appears in a small portion of these documents; the majority is by one of scribes or associates, so right off the bat we can’t be sure how involved Joseph is throughout the production of these documents. A second reason (2), that you alluded to, is that in some instances enormous blocks of English text are juxtaposed to a single Egyptian character. At this point in time Joseph had not yet studied Hebrew (or any other language), but his scribes and assistants had. It does not seem likely that Joseph or any of them would actually believe that so many English words could be translated from one single Egyptian character. Another important reason (3) the KEP are not original “translation” documents for the BOA is because there is evidence that the Egyptian glyphs were written onto the page *after* the English text was written onto the page. Also (4), transcription errors in the English sections of the documents make it clear that it is being copied from a previous manuscript, ie, it is not the original translation of the BoA. Furthermore (5), it is documented that Joseph Smith was not in Kirtland during the time when many of the KEP were produced. Also (6), it is crucial to understand that the Hieratic characters in the left hand side of the page do not come in perfect order as they appear in the Sensen text from which they were taken, which makes no sense if they are meant to be a translation of the Sensen text. Finally (7), it is also important to point out that the same set of characters appear more than once with completely different English words next to them, which also makes no sense if a translation is what is going on.

    The bottom line is that the KEP have been understudied to date. There is yet to be made a serious critical edition of the documents. There have been important suggestions made about the nature of KEP (a reverse engineering project? a type of cypher? an aborted project to generate excitement for the BoA? etc.), but the KEP do not represent Joseph’s original attempt at translating the BoA.

    5. According to my understanding, it is true that much of the restorations of the facsimiles were likely inaccurate. There is no need to suppose that these restorations in every detail were necessarily inspired of God. My understanding, though, is that the most important reconstruction is that of the lacunae in Facsimile 1, which depicts a man upon an altar with a knife raised over him. Critics attempt to show that this restoration is incorrect, but it plainly is correct.

    6. You are correct that the papyri so far recovered make no mention of Abraham, and translate into Egyptian funerary texts (Book of Breathings, etc.). It is also correct that the extant papyri date to about 100 BC-100 AD, not the time of Abraham. We have known this for a long time. The question is not how old this particular copy of the text is, but how old is the original text, aka “autograph”? The Joseph Smith Papyri are likely copies of copies, handed down through the generations. It seems probable that Joseph Smith didn’t realize this though, and assumed that the documents he possessed were the very ones that Abraham originally created and possessed. Is this a problem? Not for me, and not for most LDS. Joseph is simply a medium for producing the translation, his role is not to be a scholar of what it all means or where it came from.

    7. As for your comments regarding the “catalyst” theory of textual transmission, I agree that there are some difficulties with this view. This position does have some significant strengths, but it also has some challenges, though not insurmountable in my view. It is not my preferred view. I simply don’t hold Joseph to as high a standard as you do…I don’t expect him to understand the nature of the papyri any more than the average American in the 1830’s. Beyond his personal, fallible, observations, all he can know is what God chooses to tell him.

    8. Critics of the Book of Abraham tend to focus their attention on the transmission history of the Book of Abraham, and generally ignore the English translation itself. Significant evidence has been identified that strongly suggest an ancient context for the BoA. Themes and worldviews exist in the book that echo ancient themes and worldviews, not what one would expect from the mind of a 1830’s religious trickster. A couple of quick examples include the geocentric view of the heavens (as opposed to the heliocentric view of the 1830’), and Abraham’s name being linked to the lion couch scene in Egyptian documents from the same time period, among others. An entire volume of these sorts of evidences has been published by FARMS.

    Going forward, if we have any hope of holding a meaningful and productive dialogue my strong suggestion is that we narrowly limit ourselves to only one or two facets of the Book of Abraham at a time. Doing otherwise will render the discussion unwieldy and unproductive. You are welcome to choose which issues interest you most.


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