Book of Abraham Facsimiles

What are the Book of Abraham facsimiles?

They are three illustrations that have accompanied the text of the Book of Abraham in each of its major editions.[1]

Who drew the facsimiles?

Ancient Egyptian artists drew the original illustrations.[2] The identities of these ancient artists are unknown.

In early 1842, shortly before the Book of Abraham was first published,[3] Joseph Smith[BIO] commissioned Reuben Hedlock[BIO] to make modern copies, or facsimiles, of these illustrations for publication.[4]

Wait, didn't Abraham originally draw the facsimiles?

No, at least not these particular drawings.[5] The papyri Joseph Smith obtained are dated to the Ptolemaic Period of Egyptian history (circa 330–30 BC).[6] This is too late for the biblical prophet Abraham[BIO] to have drawn the facsimiles himself.[7]

Why did Joseph Smith include the facsimiles with his translation of the Book of Abraham?

It's unclear. There is no historical record from Joseph explaining his decision to include the facsimiles with the Book of Abraham.

Who wrote the explanations for the facsimiles?

Probably Joseph Smith, since he directly oversaw the publication of the facsimiles[8] as the editor of the Times and Seasons.[9]

It's also possible that other clerks contributed to the explanations of the facsimiles, such as Willard Richards[BIO] and Wilford Woodruff,[BIO] who helped scribe and publish the Book of Abraham in early 1842.[10]

Can Egyptologists read the characters in the facsimiles today?

Mostly, yes. Egyptologists are able to read most of the hieroglyphs in Facsimiles 2 and 3.[11] However, the hieroglyphs in Facsimile 3 were poorly copied from the original by Reuben Hedlock and aren't very legible.[12]

Facsimile 1 of the Book of Abraham in the 1981/2013 edition of the Pearl of Great Price. There are no hieroglyphic characters in this facsimile for Egyptologists to translate; it is simply a picture.[13]
Facsimile 2 of the Book of Abraham in the 1981/2013 edition of the Pearl of Great Price. Figures 2–3, 8–21 contain some hieroglyphic and some hieratic writing. Egyptologists have offered translations of these characters.[14]
Facsimile 3 of the Book of Abraham in the 1981/2013 edition of the Pearl of Great Price. Columns of hieroglyphic writing are above the standing figures in this facsimile. Egyptologists have offered translations of these hieroglyphic characters.[15]

Do Egyptologists agree with Joseph Smith's explanations of the facsimiles?

No, not really.[16] Egyptologists have disagreed with Joseph Smith's interpretations of the facsimiles since at least the mid-nineteenth century.[17] Latter-day Saint Egyptologists acknowledge that the explanations Joseph Smith provided do not match the modern Egyptological interpretation.[18]

Table of Joseph Smith's and Egyptologists' interpretations of the facsimiles.

Facsimile

Description

Joseph Smith's

Interpretation

Egyptological Interpretation

Facsimile 1

Lion-couch scene[19]

An attempted sacrifice of Abraham by an idolatrous priest of the god Elkenah.[20]

The god Anubis assisting the deceased owner of the papyrus, Hor, in the process of resurrection.[21]

Facsimile 2

Hypocephalus (funerary amulette)[22]

A cosmological map depicting the hierarchy of heavenly bodies as they relate to temple and priesthood themes.[23]

A funerary amulette that served to guide the deceased through the process of becoming a god in the afterlife and to give the body heat and warmth with magical fire.[24]

Facsimile 3

Presentation scene[25]

"Abraham is reasoning upon the principles of astronomy, in the kings Court."[26]

The deceased owner of the papyrus, Hor, is brought into the presence of the god Osiris, seated on his throne.[27]

So they don't really match—isn't this a problem for Joseph Smith?

Yes or no, depending on your assumptions on the purpose of Joseph's explanations. Various theories have been proposed to explain the discrepancies (see chart below).

Table of assumptions and corresponding explanations.

Assumption(s)

Possible Explanation(s) or Conclusion(s)

  • Modern Egyptologists are generally correct in their interpretations.

  • Joseph Smith interpreted the facsimiles by secular methods.

Joseph was a poor translator of Egyptian and the Lord permitted the mistakes to be made,[28] or Joseph was a deliberate fraud and/or delusional.[29]

  • Modern Egyptologists are generally correct in their interpretations.

  • Joseph Smith interpreted the facsimiles with secular and revelatory methods.

Joseph was a poor secular translator of Egyptian and had difficulty discerning revelation as it related to the facsimiles, and the Lord permitted the poor translation and revelation to be published.[30]

  • Modern Egyptologists may or may not be generally correct in their interpretations.

  • Joseph Smith interpreted the facsimiles with secular and revelatory methods.

Joseph's competence as a translator of Egyptian is not important because he did not intend to translate the facsimiles into their original meaning.[31]

He repurposed the original meaning of the facsimiles in an expansive, prophetic way to illustrate the Book of Abraham text;[32] or he interpreted them how Abraham's descendants would have interpreted them.[33]

  • Modern Egyptologists are generally incorrect or incomplete in their interpretations.

  • Joseph Smith interpreted the facsimiles with revelatory methods.

Joseph was a competent translator of Egyptian through revelation, and the reason for the incongruence is that modern Egyptologists do not have a complete understanding of the ancient context and meaning of the facsimiles.[34]

How has the Church attempted to explain this problem?

The Church hasn't taken any "official" position on the problems related to the facsimiles.[35] However, the Church has published research in official sources like the Ensign that support the idea that Joseph's interpretations can be correlated with modern Egyptological interpretations.[36]

The Church's 2014 Gospel Topics essay on the Book of Abraham briefly discusses the facsimiles but doesn't elaborate on the problems related to translation.[37]

What is the relationship between the facsimiles and the text of the Book of Abraham?

The facsimiles illustrate some elements in the Book of Abraham. For example, Facsimile 1 depicts Abraham 1:12–19.[38] Facsimile 2 illustrates the cosmology in Abraham 3.[39] However, Facsimile 3 depicts Abraham teaching astronomy in Pharaoh's court,[40] which is not included in the published Book of Abraham.[41]

Did Joseph Smith make any alterations to the facsimiles?

Yes, Facsimiles 1 and 2 have had alterations made to them.

A hand-copy of Facsimile 2 drafted sometime between 1835 and 1842 shows missing portions in the original that Joseph Smith had apparently filled in for publication.[42] It appears as though they were filled in with symbols borrowed from other papyrus fragments.[43]

A side-by-side comparison of an undated draft copy (left) of the hypocephalus (Facsimile 2) and the version that appeared in print in the Times and Seasons in 1842 (right).[44]

The original papyrus to Facsimile 1 also appears to have been altered.[45] The surviving papyrus fragment (see below) has large gaps in the middle and running along the top of the scene.[46]

The original illustration of Facsimile 1 (Book of Breathing of Horos Fragment A/Joseph Smith Papyrus I).[47]

It's unknown, however, how much of this papyrus fragment was damaged before the March 1842 publication of Facsimile 1.[48]

Facsimile 1 of the Book of Abraham as it appeared in print in the Times and Seasons on March 1, 1842.[49]

Shouldn't the "priest" figure in Facsimile 1 have a jackal head instead of a bald human head?

Yes, probably. The figure is most likely the jackal-headed god Anubis, based, among other reasons, on the black skin of the figure in the original papyrus.[50]

Side-by-side comparison of Figure 3 of Facsimile 1 of the Book of Abraham in the original papyrus (left) and the version published in 1842 in the Times and Seasons (right).[51]

If there was a jackal head on the man, wouldn't it be wrong to refer to him as an "idolatrous priest" like Joseph did?

Possibly. However, non-Latter-day Saint Egyptologists have identified this figure as either a priest or the god Anubis,[52] and Latter-day Saint Egyptologists have noted that examples exist of priests wearing masks of gods.[53]

Were there any revisions made to the facsimiles after they were first published?

Yes, minor revisions.[54] Each time the facsimiles were redrawn for various editions of the Pearl of Great Price there have been some slight alterations.[55]

Changes made in the different major editions of Facsimile 2 of the Book of Abraham.[56]

Is it true that one of the facsimiles has a pagan Egyptian fertility god in it?

Yes. Egyptologists have identified Figure 7 of Facsimile 2 as an ancient Egyptian fertility deity.[57] The ancient Egyptians recognized fertility deities which commonly represented concepts such as fertility, sex, pregnancy, childbirth, the growth of crops, etc.[58]

Are there any portions of the facsimiles that Joseph may have interpreted correctly?

Yes, some elements of Joseph's explanations of the facsimiles are supported by Egyptology.[59] For example, Joseph Smith's interpretations of Figure 6 in Facsimile 2 as representing "this earth in its four quarters" has Egyptological support.[60] Another example is Joseph Smith's interpretation of Figure 9 in Facsimile 1 as "the idolatrous god of Pharaoh."[61]

Other elements of Joseph's explanations of the facsimiles have plausible support when placed in a broader ancient Egyptian or Semitic context.[62]

Some People Say . . .

"The facsimiles are kinda weird and interesting, I guess."

— overheard in Sunday School

The Facts

  • Three facsimiles have accompanied the text of the Book of Abraham in each of its major editions since 1842.

  • Joseph Smith probably provided the "explanations" to these facsimiles that offer interpretations of the figures and connect them with the text of the Book of Abraham.

  • The explanations published in the facsimiles are sometimes referred to as "translations" or text that has been "revealed."

  • These explanations generally do not match modern interpretations provided by Latter-day Saint and Non-Latter-day Saint Egyptologists.

  • Some individual elements of Joseph's explanations of the facsimiles do have justifiable support from an Egyptological perspective.

  • The Church has acknowledged the problems related to the translation of the facsimile explanations but has not offered an explanation.

Our Take

One of the biggest tests of Joseph Smith as a prophet, and the whole Restoration he started, is the new scripture given through him. The facsimiles in the Book of Abraham are a unique part of that new scripture and serve as a type of illustration for the revelations.

But when modern Egyptology work seems to contradict how Joseph explained the facsimiles, it could challenge a faithful understanding of Joseph's work. Did Joseph understand what the facsimiles were? Did Joseph translate them incorrectly or make up what they were about?

While some elements of Joseph's explanations of the facsimiles do have support from an Egyptological perspective, in general, the explanations don’t match modern interpretations. The Church has acknowledged this problem, but they maintain that the Book of Abraham is inspired revelation and have not offered any explanations for the secular discrepancies.

Potential answers to the discrepancies depend on our assumptions. If Joseph was adapting the Egyptian images rather than directly translating them, then the secular translations wouldn’t match his explanations. Or perhaps Joseph could have translated these poorly or misunderstood the revelations he received, and the Lord permitted them to be published anyway. Or Egyptologists could lack a complete understanding of the facsimiles, and perhaps Joseph's explanations are reasonable.

Unfortunately, because of the lack of information on the translation process and the historical fuzziness both in Joseph's day and Abrahamic times, people looking for a simple resolution to this problem may be disappointed. Similar to other restored scripture like the Book of Mormon, understanding the history and context of the facsimiles is supplemental to a spiritual confirmation that comes by study and faith.

What's Your Take?

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These takes are curated for a general audience and may contain minor edits when posted.
  • Anonymous
    The Lord revealed the original truth of these ancient papers, regardless of what the current secular text says. The Book of Abraham and its facsimiles have never posed a problem to me.
  • Joey F
    David is correct!
  • Nathan C.
    My understanding has been that Joseph translated portions of the papyrus (that we no longer have) to produce the BoA. Then , feeling like he'd obtained a decent grasp of the language attempted a 'secular' interpretation of the facsimiles. He got some right and some wrong.
  • David C.
    I think the scrolls acted as a catalyst to open the door way to the BoA. That’s why the facsimile doesn’t match. Similar to the seer stone. It opened the door for revelation to translate
Footnotes