What exactly is the Book of Abraham?
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, although the text was not published until March 1842. The book purports to be an autobiographical text written by Abraham and preserved on an ancient Egyptian papyrus.
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, and exhibited a collection of mummies and papyrus rolls to Joseph Smith.
Joseph, with the help of at least two other Church members, purchased at least two rolls of papyrus and four mummies, among other fragments or pieces of papyrus from Chandler for $2,400. Joseph pronounced that the scrolls contained the writings of Abraham and Joseph of Egypt.[BIO]
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." 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. On at least one occasion Joseph himself called the text a "revelation," and contemporary non-Latter-day Saint sources also called it a revelation.
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. 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. It's possible that this is referring to the translation of the Book of Abraham, which was published in early 1842.
Did Joseph believe the papyrus was literally written by Abraham himself?
Many Latter-day Saints also believed the Egyptian papyrus and the mummies accompanying them were as old as Abraham or were written by Abraham and Joseph of Egypt directly, so this assumption was probably widely held among Joseph Smith's contemporaries.
Could the papyrus have been literally written by Abraham, as in, the ink on the papyrus was put there by Abraham himself?
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. 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.
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.
Did Joseph translate or reveal more text than is currently published?
Possibly. Joseph intended to publish more Book of Abraham material, and on one occasion, Joseph referenced concepts he claimed were from the "record of Abraham" that are not present in the published text. 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.
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. Some of the papyri ended up at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City and was transferred to the Church in 1967.
Before he died on June 27, 1844, Joseph gave the papyri and mummies to his mother, Lucy Mack Smith. 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.
Part of Combs' collection ended up in the St. Louis Museum just weeks after their sale. This portion of the collection wound up in the Wood's Museum (also known simply as the Chicago Museum) in Chicago by 1863, and perished in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871.
The other portion of the papyri was retained by Combs and passed to his housekeeper Charlotte Beneke Weaver[BIO] after he died in 1892. Charlotte Beneke died in 1915 and Charlotte's daughter Alice Combs Weaver[BIO] then took possession of the papyri.
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. It was not until 1947 that the papyri fragments were finally were sold to the Met by Alice's surviving husband Edward Heusser.[BIO] Twenty years later, on November 27, 1967, these fragments of the Joseph Smith Papyri were returned to the Church.
This table lists the custodial chain of the papyri up until 1856 at which time the papyri was divided into two portions.
Lucy Mack Smith
May 14, 1856
Lucy Mack Smith
Emma and Lewis Bidamon
May 26, 1856
Emma and Lewis Bidamon
St. Louis Museum
St. Louis, MO
St. Louis Museum
Woods Museum (Chicago Museum)
October 8–10, 1871
This table lists the custodial chain of the second portion of the papyri which the Church took possession of in 1967.
May 26, 1856
Emma and Lewis Bidamon
|July 5, 1892||Abel Combs||Charlotte Beneke Weaver||Philadelphia, PA|
|March 21, 1915||Charlotte Beneke Weaver||Alice Combs Weaver||New York, NY|
|June 9, 1941||Alice Combs Weaver||Edward Heusser||New York, NY|
Metropolitan Museum of Art
New York, NY
November 27, 1967
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. The recovered papyri fragments contain copies of ancient funerary texts known today as the Book (or Document) of Breathings and the Book of the Dead.
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. Articles and reprints of the papyri were then published in Church publications.
Has the Church ever tried to hide the fact that the text on the papyri doesn't match the Book of Abraham?
Hugh Nibley[BIO] also published a translation of the Book of Breathings (found among the Joseph Smith papyri) in 1975 through Deseret Book. And in 2002 and 2010, a Latter-day Saint Egyptologist published translations of all the papyri fragments through Brigham Young University.
Didn't the Church admit in 2014 that the Book of Abraham is false?
No. The Church published an essay on July 8, 2014, 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."
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.
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.
The "catalyst" theory is that the papyri were just a device used to inspire Joseph Smith to receive revelation.
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. Whereas the 1967 fragments were mounted on backing paper and framed in glass sometime in the late 1830s or early 1840s.
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
". . . four human figures, together with some two or more rolls of papyrus, covered with Hierogliphic, figures and devices."
2 or more rolls
Joseph Smith Manuscript History (ca. 1843; entry for July 3, 1835)
". . . four Egyptian mummies . . . With them were two papyrus rolls, besides some other ancient Egyptian writings."
2 scrolls and some writings
William W. Phelps letter (July 1835)
". . . four Egyptian Mummies . . . also some r[e]cords"
John Whitmer history (ca. 1838; entry for July 1835)
". . . three of the mummies [owned by Chandler] . . ."
Cleveland Whig (August 1835)
". . . four Egyptian mummies, and a hieroglyphic bundle of characters . . ."
bundle of characters
Joseph Bradley (August 1835)
". . . Three mummies . . ."
Albany Journal (August 1835)
". . . two or three mummies . . ."
2 or 3
Painesville Telegraph (September 1835)
". . . four Egyptian mummi[e]s . . . also an ancient record . . ."
Albert Brown (November 1835)
". . . two rolls [of papyrus] . . . a small quantity of papyrus . . . . [and] the remaining four [mummies in Chandler's collection]."
2 rolls and a quantity of papyrus
Oliver Cowdery (December 1835)
". . . four Egyptian mummies."
Truman Coe (August 1836)
". . . two females and one male [mummy]. . . papyrus, or an ancient Egyptian paper . . . on which is a splendid specimen of Egyptian Hieroglyphics."
Ohio Watchman & Liberal Enquirer (September 1836)
". . . four Egyptian Mu[m]mies."
Wilford Woodruff (November 1836)
". . . four mummies, and a quantity of records, written on papyrus, in Egyptian hieroglyphics . . ."
a quantity of records
William West (1837)
". . . three or four Egyptian Mummies, with an ancient Egyptian record, written on papyrus . . ."
3 or 4
John Corrill (1839)
". . . four [mummies] . . . the Papyrus . . ."
Sentinel of Freedom (June 1840)
". . . several Egyptian Mummies . . . numerous fragments of Egyptian papyrus . . ."
Alexandria Gazette (1840)
". . . two mummies . . ."
Tyler Parsons (1841)
". . . four mummies, one male and three females . . . [a] Roll of Papyrus . . ."
William Appleby (1841/1847)
". . . the Egyptian mummies, of which he has four . . ."
New-York Tribune (September 1841)
". . . some mummies . . . a roll of manuscripts . . ."
American Advocate (October 1841)
". . . a number of glazed slides, like picture frames, containing sheets of papyrus, with Egyptian inscriptions and hieroglyphics. . . . four mummies . . ."
a number of sheets
Henry Caswall (1842)
". . . four mummies . . . together with the records . . ."
Joseph Smith (1842)
". . . the record together with some or all of the mummies [owned by Chandler]. . ."
Parley P. Pratt (1842)
". . . four Egyptian mummies . . . papyrus rolls in which they were enveloped . . ."
Dublin University Magazine (March 1843)
". . . half a dozen mummies . . . a long roll of manuscript . . ."
a long roll
Charlotte Haven (March 1843)
". . . three mummies, and the writings and hieroglyphics which were found rolled up and preserved on the breast of one . . ."
H. A. Graves (August 1843)
". . . ancient records found with a number of mummies in good preservation. . ."
Millennial Star (December 1843)
". . . four mummies . . . the writing of Abraham . . ."
LaFayette Knight (December 1843)
". . . four mummies . . . some hieroglyphics . . ."
Boston Evening Transcript (January 1844)
". . . four Egyptian mummies . . . a chart or manuscript . . ."
Charles Francis Adams, Sr. (May 1844)
". . . four Egyptian Mummies . . . bundles of papyri . . ."
bundles of papyri
Buffalo Daily Courier and Economist (June 1844)
|". . . two mummy kings and their queens . . . and a number of sheets of hieroglyphics . . ."|
a number of sheets
|Ladies' Magazine and Album (June 1848)|
". . . 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]."
Luman Andros Shurtliff (ca. 1852–1876; event described transpired circa December 1837)
". . . half a dozen Egyptian mummies . . . a large number of framed sheets of papyrus covered with hieroglyphics . . ."
Buffalo Daily Courier (October 1852)
". . . three mummies . . . three pieces of hieroglpyhic writing upon parchment of a very antique appearance."
Josiah Quincy (January 1854)
". . . four Egyptian mummies . . . records . . ."
Emma Hale Smith (May 1856)
"four mummies . . . records which . . . were some kind of parchment or papyrus, and it contained writing in red and black."
Robert Horne (1883)
". . . rolls of Papyrus . . ."
Foster W. Jones (1897)
". . . 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 . . ."
Joseph Smith III (October 1898)
". . . three Egyptian mummies . . ."
Catherine Hulet Winget (1905)
" . . . an interminable roll of sere cloth said to have been taken from a mummy, which was covered with hieroglyphics . . ."
Cora Agnes Bennison (1909)
". . . three mummies . . . the roll of papyrus from which our prophet translated the Book of Abraham."
Jerusha Walker Blanchard (1922)
" . . . the mummies, four in number . . . with them were two rolls of papyrus containing, among other writings, the book of Abraham, which the Prophet translated. . ."
two rolls of papyrus
Solomon H. Hale (1938)
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.
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. 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.
Is there evidence to support the "catalyst" theory?
Yes. Joseph Smith and several sources close to him 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.
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. 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.
- Julie P
“I appreciate learning more about the ancient records and Egyptian mummies that Joseph Smith acquired. I believe that The Pearl of Great Price is inspired of God and gifted to us by Revelation. Like The Book of Mormon, a person will need to read and pray with faith for answers.”
“The evidence supports: The missing scroll theory, but the catalyst theory is an option. That MS A-C are copies, and the characters in the margins a retrofit attempt. Eyewitnesses, leading faithful scholars and leading BoA critics agree: the GAEL was not for translating the BoA.”
“God speaks to men in their weakness and understanding. Joseph Smith, like many of his contemporaries, viewed ancient Egyptian writings as having a mystical nature. They acted as a catalyst. Or the missing scroll theory is right. Either way, it’s revelation.”
- Jon W
“Even IF the remaining fragments are exactly what Joseph Smith translated and even IF they don’t match, and even IF Joseph claimed to directly translate the fragments, he still could see things as a seer that scholars don’t see. That’s where faith comes in.”
- Aaron P
“Joseph's concept of "translation" was broader than we think of today. Note the captions to the Book of Moses and D&C 7--"translations" by revelation of non-extant documents. In fact, on April 3, 1842, the NY Herald even noted the BoA "as a revelation among the Mormons."”