Book of Abraham Translation

What exactly is the Book of Abraham?

The Book of Abraham is a book of scripture included as part of the Pearl of Great Price. The Church upholds the text as "an inspired translation of the writings of Abraham."[BIO][1]

Where did the Book of Abraham come from?

Joseph Smith[BIO] produced the Book of Abraham after he acquired some Egyptian papyri and mummies in July 1835,[2] although the text was not published until March 1842.[3] The book purports to be an autobiographical text written by Abraham and preserved on an ancient Egyptian papyrus.[4]

How did these Egyptian records end up in Joseph Smith's possession?

In late June or early July 1835, a traveling antiquities showman named Michael H. Chandler[BIO] arrived in Kirtland, Ohio,[5] and exhibited a collection of mummies and papyrus rolls to Joseph Smith.[6]

Joseph, with the help of at least two other Church members,[7] purchased at least two rolls of papyrus and four mummies, among other fragments or pieces of papyrus from Chandler for $2,400.[8] Joseph pronounced that the scrolls contained the writings of Abraham and Joseph of Egypt.[BIO][9][10]

Do we know how Joseph Smith translated the papyri?

Not really, no. Joseph left no firsthand account explaining how he produced the text of the Book of Abraham, which he called a "translation."[11] Multiple sources, including a scribe who worked on the project, indicated that Joseph translated the papyri by revelation but did not elaborate on the precise method.[12] On at least one occasion Joseph himself called the text a "revelation,"[13] and contemporary non-Latter-day Saint sources also called it a revelation.[14]

Did Joseph use the Urim and Thummim in the translation?

Yes, probably. There are multiple sources that reported Joseph using the Urim and Thummim or "spectacles" to translate the papyri.[15] But it is unclear to what extent or how exactly Joseph used the Urim and Thummim in the translation.

Did Joseph use the seer stone in the translation?

Possibly. One of Joseph Smith's Nauvoo-era clerks, Howard Coray,[BIO] remembered seeing Joseph translate with the seer stone sometime in the early 1840s.[16] It's possible that this is referring to the translation of the Book of Abraham, which was published in early 1842.

Also, Joseph's mother, Lucy Mack Smith,[BIO] reportedly said that Joseph translated the papyri by looking into a hat.[17]

Did Joseph believe the papyrus was literally written by Abraham himself?

Yes, probably. Joseph Smith seemed to indicate he believed Abraham himself physically wrote on the papyrus.[18] There are also secondhand sources that report this.[19]

Many Latter-day Saints also believed the Egyptian papyrus and the mummies accompanying them were as old as Abraham[20] or were written by Abraham and Joseph of Egypt directly,[21] so this assumption was probably widely held among Joseph Smith's contemporaries.[22]

Could the papyrus have been literally written by Abraham, as in, the ink on the papyrus was put there by Abraham himself?

No. Traditional biblical chronology puts the life of Abraham at around 2,000 BC,[23] but the papyri date to approximately the third-century BC to the first century AD.[24]

But doesn't it say that the Book of Abraham was "written by his own hand, upon papyrus"?

Yes. The header where that appears was probably written by Joseph Smith, who seemed to believe that Abraham literally wrote on the papyrus.[25] It's also possible that Joseph translated it as part of the text of the Book of Abraham. The phrase "by/with the hand" is a phrase found in ancient Egyptian writing that can denote authorship rather than the literal scribe of the text.[26]

Did Joseph Smith ever use the Book of Abraham in his teachings?

Yes. There are several documented instances where Joseph Smith used concepts or teachings from the Book of Abraham in his sermons and writings.[27]

Did Joseph translate or reveal more text than is currently published?

Possibly. Joseph intended to publish more Book of Abraham material,[28] and on one occasion, Joseph referenced concepts he claimed were from the "record of Abraham" that are not present in the published text.[29] One source also remembered spending two hours with Joseph reading from the "translations of the Book of Abraham" which may indicate the existence of additional material.[30]

What happened to the papyri after Joseph Smith's death?

Some of the papyri ended up in the Chicago Museum and were presumably burned up in the Chicago fire of 1871.[31] Some of the papyri ended up at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City and was transferred to the Church in 1967.[32]

Before he died on June 27, 1844, Joseph gave the papyri and mummies to his mother, Lucy Mack Smith.[33] After her death on May 14, 1856, ownership transferred to Emma Smith[BIO] and her new husband Lewis Bidamon,[BIO] who promptly sold the collection to a man named Abel Combs[BIO] just twelve days later on May 26, 1856.[34]

Part of Combs' collection ended up in the St. Louis Museum just weeks after their sale.[35] This portion of the collection wound up in the Wood's Museum (also known simply as the Chicago Museum) in Chicago by 1863,[36] and perished in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871.[37]

The other portion of the papyri was retained by Combs and passed to his housekeeper Charlotte Beneke Weaver[BIO] after he died in 1892.[38] Charlotte Beneke died in 1915 and Charlotte's daughter Alice Combs Weaver[BIO] then took possession of the papyri.[39]

In 1918, Alice showed the papyri fragments to scholars at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, but no sale was transacted at that time.[40] It was not until 1947 that the papyri fragments were finally were sold to the Met by Alice's surviving husband Edward Heusser.[BIO][41] Twenty years later, on November 27, 1967, these fragments of the Joseph Smith Papyri were returned to the Church.[42]

This table lists the custodial chain of the papyri up until 1856 at which time the papyri was divided into two portions.

Date

Custodian

Transferred To

Location

July 1835[43]

Michael Chandler

Joseph Smith

Kirtland, OH

Circa 1842[44]

Joseph Smith

Lucy Mack Smith

Nauvoo, IL

May 14, 1856[45]

Lucy Mack Smith

Emma and Lewis Bidamon

Nauvoo, IL

May 26, 1856[46]

Emma and Lewis Bidamon

Abel Combs

Nauvoo, IL

June 1856[47]

Abel Combs

St. Louis Museum

St. Louis, MO

Circa 1863[48]

St. Louis Museum

Woods Museum (Chicago Museum)

Chicago, IL

October 8–10, 1871[49]

Woods Museum

Destroyed

Chicago, IL

This table lists the custodial chain of the second portion of the papyri which the Church took possession of in 1967.

Date

Custodian

Transferred To

Location

May 26, 1856[50]

Emma and Lewis Bidamon

Abel Combs

Nauvoo, IL

July 5, 1892[51]Abel CombsCharlotte Beneke WeaverPhiladelphia, PA
March 21, 1915[52]Charlotte Beneke WeaverAlice Combs WeaverNew York, NY
June 9, 1941[53]Alice Combs WeaverEdward HeusserNew York, NY

1947[54]

Edward Heusser

Metropolitan Museum of Art

New York, NY

November 27, 1967[55]

Metropolitan Museum of Art

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

Salt Lake City, UT

Do any of the surviving fragments of the Joseph Smith Papyri translate as the Book of Abraham?

No. Both Latter-day Saint and non-Latter-day Saint Egyptologists have translated these fragments, and the fragments don't contain the English text of the Book of Abraham.[56] The recovered papyri fragments contain copies of ancient funerary texts known today as the Book (or Document) of Breathings[57] and the Book of the Dead.[58]

Has the Church ever tried to suppress the discovery of the papyri fragments after they were discovered in 1967?

No. The Church announced the acquisition in both the Deseret News and the Church News as soon as the transfer from the Metropolitan Museum was finalized on November 27, 1967.[59] Articles and reprints of the papyri were then published in Church publications.[60]

Has the Church ever tried to hide the fact that the text on the papyri doesn't match the Book of Abraham?

No. When they received the papyri, the Church indicated that the papyri appeared to include common funerary texts.[61] Since then, other Church publications have noted the same.[62]

Hugh Nibley[BIO] also published a translation of the Book of Breathings (found among the Joseph Smith papyri) in 1975 through Deseret Book.[63] And in 2002 and 2010, a Latter-day Saint Egyptologist published translations of all the papyri fragments through Brigham Young University.[64]

Didn't the Church admit in 2014 that the Book of Abraham is false?

No. The Church published an essay on July 8, 2014,[65] entitled "Translation and Historicity of the Book of Abraham," which stated, "The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints embraces the book of Abraham as scripture."[66]

The essay acknowledged that the surviving Egyptian papyri fragments date centuries after Abraham's lifetime and do not contain any text published by Joseph Smith.[67]

So if the papyri aren't from Abraham's lifetime, and the translation of the papyri done by Egyptologists doesn't match the Book of Abraham, isn't this a problem?

Possibly. If the recovered 1967 papyri fragments were the source for a literal translation of the text as opposed to an inspired revelation, it could be a problem.

Are there explanations for the translation of the 1967 papyri not matching the Book of Abraham?

Yes. There are two primary theories. The "missing scroll" theory and the "catalyst" theory.

The "missing scroll" theory is that the Book of Abraham was translated from the portion of the papyri that were presumably burned up in the Chicago fire in 1871.[68]

The "catalyst" theory is that the papyri were just a device used to inspire Joseph Smith to receive revelation.[69]

Is there evidence for the "missing scroll" theory?

Yes. Many historical sources describe the papyri differently, including some that refer to a "scroll" or "roll" with the writings of Abraham.[70] Whereas the 1967 fragments were mounted on backing paper and framed in glass sometime in the late 1830s or early 1840s.[71]

This table lists all known historical records that refer to the mummies and papyri (scroll, rolls, etc.) acquired by Joseph Smith.

What was purchased or owned by Joseph Smith

Number of Mummies

Number of Texts

Source

". . . four human figures, together with some two or more rolls of papyrus, covered with Hierogliphic, figures and devices."

4

2 or more rolls

Joseph Smith Manuscript History (ca. 1843; entry for July 3, 1835)[72]

". . . four Egyptian mummies . . . With them were two papyrus rolls, besides some other ancient Egyptian writings."

4

2 scrolls and some writings

William W. Phelps letter (July 1835)[73]

". . . four Egyptian Mummies . . . also some r[e]cords"

4

some records

John Whitmer history (ca. 1838; entry for July 1835)[74]

". . . three of the mummies [owned by Chandler] . . ."

3

-

Cleveland Whig (August 1835)[75]

". . . four Egyptian mummies, and a hieroglyphic bundle of characters . . ."

4

bundle of characters

Joseph Bradley (August 1835)[76]

". . . Three mummies . . ."

3

-

Albany Journal (August 1835)[77]

". . . two or three mummies . . ."

2 or 3

-

Painesville Telegraph (September 1835)[78]

". . . four Egyptian mummi[e]s . . . also an ancient record . . ."

4

a record

Albert Brown (November 1835)[79]

". . . two rolls [of papyrus] . . . a small quantity of papyrus . . . . [and] the remaining four [mummies in Chandler's collection]."

4

2 rolls and a quantity of papyrus

Oliver Cowdery (December 1835)[80]

". . . four Egyptian mummies."

4

-

Truman Coe (August 1836)[81]

". . . two females and one male [mummy]. . . papyrus, or an ancient Egyptian paper . . . on which is a splendid specimen of Egyptian Hieroglyphics."

3

a paper

Ohio Watchman & Liberal Enquirer (September 1836)[82]

". . . four Egyptian Mu[m]mies."

4

-

Wilford Woodruff (November 1836)[83]

". . . four mummies, and a quantity of records, written on papyrus, in Egyptian hieroglyphics . . ."

4

a quantity of records

William West (1837)[84]

". . . three or four Egyptian Mummies, with an ancient Egyptian record, written on papyrus . . ."

3 or 4

a record

John Corrill (1839)[85]

". . . four [mummies] . . . the Papyrus . . ."

4

the papyrus

Sentinel of Freedom (June 1840)[86]

". . . several Egyptian Mummies . . . numerous fragments of Egyptian papyrus . . ."

several

numerous fragments

Alexandria Gazette (1840)[87]

". . . two mummies . . ."

2

-

Tyler Parsons (1841)[88]

". . . four mummies, one male and three females . . . [a] Roll of Papyrus . . ."

4

a roll

William Appleby (1841/1847)[89]

". . . the Egyptian mummies, of which he has four . . ."

4

-

New-York Tribune (September 1841)[90]

". . . some mummies . . . a roll of manuscripts . . ."

some

a roll

American Advocate (October 1841)[91]

". . . a number of glazed slides, like picture frames, containing sheets of papyrus, with Egyptian inscriptions and hieroglyphics. . . . four mummies . . ."

4

a number of sheets

Henry Caswall (1842)[92]

". . . four mummies . . . together with the records . . ."

4

records

Joseph Smith (1842)[93]

". . . the record together with some or all of the mummies [owned by Chandler]. . ."

some

record

Parley P. Pratt (1842)[94]

". . . four Egyptian mummies . . . papyrus rolls in which they were enveloped . . ."

4

papyrus rolls

Dublin University Magazine (March 1843)[95]

". . . half a dozen mummies . . . a long roll of manuscript . . ."

6

a long roll

Charlotte Haven (March 1843)[96]

". . . three mummies, and the writings and hieroglyphics which were found rolled up and preserved on the breast of one . . ."

3

writings

H. A. Graves (August 1843)[97]

". . . ancient records found with a number of mummies in good preservation. . ."

a number

records

Millennial Star (December 1843)[98]

". . . four mummies . . . the writing of Abraham . . ."

4

writing

LaFayette Knight (December 1843)[99]

". . . four mummies . . . some hieroglyphics . . ."

4

some hieroglyphics

Boston Evening Transcript (January 1844)[100]

". . . four Egyptian mummies . . . a chart or manuscript . . ."

4

a manuscript

Charles Francis Adams, Sr. (May 1844)[101]

". . . four Egyptian Mummies . . . bundles of papyri . . ."

4

bundles of papyri

Buffalo Daily Courier and Economist (June 1844)[102]

". . . two mummy kings and their queens . . . and a number of sheets of hieroglyphics . . ."

4

a number of sheets

Ladies' Magazine and Album (June 1848)[103]

". . . the mummies five in number . . . Parchment or Papyrus . . . The parchment appeared to be made of fine linen cloth starched or sised with some kind of gum then Ironed smooth and written on in characters figures Hyroglyphics &c conveying the Egyptian language these sheets were about as large as the page of this book when open [8x12 inches]."

5

parchment

Luman Andros Shurtliff (ca. 1852–1876; event described transpired circa December 1837)[104]

". . . half a dozen Egyptian mummies . . . a large number of framed sheets of papyrus covered with hieroglyphics . . ."

6

sheets

Buffalo Daily Courier (October 1852)[105]

". . . three mummies . . . three pieces of hieroglpyhic writing upon parchment of a very antique appearance."

3

3

Josiah Quincy (January 1854)[106]

". . . four Egyptian mummies . . . records . . ."

4

records

Emma Hale Smith (May 1856)[107]

"four mummies . . . records which . . . were some kind of parchment or papyrus, and it contained writing in red and black."

4

parchment

Robert Horne (1883)[108]

". . . rolls of Papyrus . . ."

-

rolls

Foster W. Jones (1897)[109]

". . . a roll with some Egyptian mummies, pasted on either paper or linen and put into a small case of flat drawers, some dozen or sixteen in number . . . with two cases of mummies containing five persons . . ."

5

a roll

Joseph Smith III (October 1898)[110]

". . . three Egyptian mummies . . ."

3

-

Catherine Hulet Winget (1905)[111]

" . . . an interminable roll of sere cloth said to have been taken from a mummy, which was covered with hieroglyphics . . ."

-

a roll

Cora Agnes Bennison (1909)[112]

". . . three mummies . . . the roll of papyrus from which our prophet translated the Book of Abraham."

3

a roll

Jerusha Walker Blanchard (1922)[113]

" . . . the mummies, four in number . . . with them were two rolls of papyrus containing, among other writings, the book of Abraham, which the Prophet translated. . ."

4

two rolls of papyrus

Solomon H. Hale (1938)[114]

But didn't Joseph Smith believe the Book of Abraham came from the 1967 fragments?

Possibly. Joseph didn't give any firsthand indication of which portion of the papyri he was translating. There are some secondhand accounts from people who say that Joseph Smith identified the fragments mounted on backing paper as the source of the Book of Abraham.[115]

Don't the original Book of Abraham manuscripts indicate that Joseph was working off of the 1967 fragments?

Possibly. The Kirtland-era Book of Abraham manuscripts contained Egyptian characters in the left margin.[116] Most of these characters are from the 1967 fragment of papyrus, which would indicate a relationship between the 1967 fragments and the translation of the Book of Abraham.[117]

Is there evidence to support the "catalyst" theory?

Yes. Joseph Smith[118] and several sources close to him[119] referred to the Book of Abraham as being received by "direct inspiration of heaven" or as being a "revelation." Orson Pratt understood the translations of the Book of Mormon, the Book of Abraham, and the "parchment of John" (Doctrine and Covenants 7) as all stemming from the same "gift of translation" that God gave Joseph.[120]

Does the Church teach either of these two theories, the "missing scroll" theory or the "catalyst" theory, as its own official position?

No. The Church does not have an official position on how Joseph Smith translated the Book of Abraham other than he did so by the gift and power of God.[121] However, the Church has offered both the "missing scroll" theory as well as the "catalyst" theory as possible explanations for the origins of the Book of Abraham that are in harmony with its position that the text is inspired scripture.[122]

Some People Say . . .

"The Book of Abraham is the word of God."

— overheard in Sunday School

The Facts

  • Joseph Smith came into the possession of some Egyptian papyri and mummies in July 1835.

  • Joseph Smith said the papyri contained the writings of Abraham and Joseph of Egypt.

  • The Urim and Thummim (and possibly the seer stone) were likely used in the translation process.

  • After Joseph's death, the papyri were divided into two portions in 1856.

  • The first portion was likely destroyed in the Chicago fire in 1871.

  • The second portion was returned to the Church in 1967.

  • The surviving fragments do not translate as the Book of Abraham but instead as common Egyptian funerary texts.

  • The Church has openly acknowledged this ever since 1967 and has never attempted to conceal this.

  • The Church accepts the Book of Abraham as inspired scripture.

  • The Church leaves both the "missing scroll" theory as well as the "catalyst" theory as possibilities to explain the mismatch between the 1967 papyri fragments and the Book of Abraham.

Our Take

The Church and the Restored Gospel hinges on the validity of Joseph Smith as a prophet. Joseph’s validity hinges on his works, which included bringing forth new scripture. One such scripture, the Book of Abraham, has a complicated history. The issues surrounding the Book of Abraham can feel overwhelming.

There's much we still don't know about when it comes to precisely how Joseph Smith translated the Book of Abraham. A bunch of papyri is missing. The 1967 papyri doesn't match the Book of Abraham. One explanation could be that Joseph Smith wasn't a prophet. However, there are other evidence-based explanations for the Book of Abraham.

There are two reasonable theories. The "missing papyrus" theory is that Joseph translated the papyri that burned in the Chicago fire. The "catalyst" theory is that the Book of Abraham text was revealed to Joseph with the papyri acting as a source of divine inspiration.

The text of the Book of Abraham offers insights into the nature of God, the Plan of Salvation, and other gospel themes. But the messy history may still feel weird or uncomfortable. While we don't know the details of the translation, we rely on a spiritual witness and faith that the Book of Abraham was revealed and Joseph Smith was a prophet of God.

What's Your Take?

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These takes are curated for a general audience and may contain minor edits when posted.
  • Kaitlynn N
    The Pearl of Great Price is part of the Standard Works but it has this much discussion on where it came from? I guess the Bible has those kind of problems too. I just apply Moroni's Promise and pray about it, scriptures need spiritual knowledge anyways.
  • McKenzie L.
    This is so complicated. I didn't know how messy it was. Even though it's messy, I like that the Church didn't hide it from me. The Book of Abraham is really cool and I learn so much from it.
Footnotes