In 1835, a traveling showman brought an exhibit of Egyptian mummies and papyri to Kirtland, Ohio. Joseph Smith, being fascinated by ancient things, was highly intrigued and was permitted to examine the Egyptian writings. After doing so, Joseph Smith was elated as he announced that these were the writings of the great biblical patriarch Abraham. What good fortune, what were the chances! Furthermore, he said, there were also some writings of Joseph of Egypt. Several members of the Church pooled their money and bought the papyri and mummies for $2,400 (a large sum of money especially in those days). After about seven years, Joseph finished the translation of the scroll which he called the Book of Abraham, but he died before translating the Book of Joseph scroll.
The original papyri that Joseph Smith translated into the Book of Abraham became lost and were thought to have been burned in the Chicago fire, but amazingly they were found in a New York museum in 1967. The church now has these papyri, and according to the February 1967 Improvement Era (half a century ago), there was “an unprecedented amount of interest generated throughout the church by the recovery of 11 pieces of papyri that were once the property of the Prophet Joseph Smith.” Of course there was great anticipation. This would prove without any doubt that Joseph was a true translator and prophet. However, most church members have heard little or nothing to do with the recovery of the papyri. Why? Because the papyri were found to have absolutely nothing to do with Abraham. In fact, they were not even close. They were found to be funeral texts, which you would expect to find in a mummy, and were dated to well after Abraham’s time.
Unfortunately, this finding was in direct conflict with Joseph Smith’s declaration that the papyri were written by Abraham himself. Joseph said: “… 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 also wrote: “Joseph the Seer has presented us some of the Book of Abraham which was written by his own hand but hid from the knowledge of man for the last four thousand years but has now come to light through the mercy of God.” (Diary of Wilford Woodruff, entry of February 19, 1842, LDS archives).
Today, LDS and non-LDS scholars are in agreement that Joseph’s translation and declarations that the book was written by Abraham have serious problems. The preface to the Book of Abraham reads:
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.
This finding was also in direct conflict with the “translation” which was found to be completely different from what was actually written on the papyri. Furthermore, the facsimiles were also found to be translated completely incorrectly, often with extremely grave errors. Note the difference between Joseph’s interpretation of the missing pieces versus the actual Egyptian renditions:
In addition, there are historical anachronisms in the Book of Abraham that indicate that it was not written in Abraham’s time, that the account given and the actual history do not match up, and that the workings of the universe as described in the book are actually early 19th century notions.
It is known that Joseph Smith had a track record for fraud before founding the church, being arrested and tried in court numerous times and being convicted as guilty of fraudulence (see, for example, this article). This is acknowledged to be true by LDS historians as well (see this link). Is this why the Book of Abraham has turned out to be untrue?
For a more detailed treatment of the translation, see this article.
For an in-depth analysis regarding the implausibility of the Book of Abraham being true, see this article.
For the wikipedia article on the subject, see this link.
For a more contextual explanation, see Part 2 of the Gentle Awakening Presentation Series.