Recently, I was forwarded a response received by a concerned member who wrote his BYU professor of ancient scripture regarding the Book of Abraham problem. The professor holds a PhD in the field of ancient scripture and provided the following response. I will include an open response to his explanation.
Explanation from BYU Ancient Scripture Professor
Sorry about the delay. There are lots of things that could be said about the Book of Abraham. For LDS, the two biggest problems that arise are 1) the text found just next to what we call Facsimile 1 (in the papyrus fragment that the church owns) is not the story of Abraham, but is rather from an Egyptian funerary text; and 2) Egyptologists do not translate the other two facsimiles the same way that Joseph Smith did. People then are led to believe that Joseph Smith was not a prophet and was making up what we have in BoAbraham & the facsimiles.
Most of the problems people see concerning the Book of Abraham stem from making faulty assumptions. Some have assumed that the text on the papyrus we now have was what Joseph Smith translated the Book of Abraham from. Yet this is only an assumption. It’s interesting that, when you look at ancient Egyptian texts of this sort, the drawing is almost never located right next to the text it is connected with. Joseph’s description of the papyrus he was translating actually sounds very different from what we currently have (i.e. he talked about red lettering along with the black and other items that do not sound like what we currently have). It appears that the facsimiles were cut from the papyrus and mounted for visitors to see, and that Joseph was working from an entirely different portion of the papyrus. The concerns disappear when we stop making unfounded assumptions (i.e., the assumption that what we currently have is the same text as what Joseph was translating, or the assumption that Joseph got the Book of Abraham as a direct translation from the papyrus, etc.) The problem in discussing this with those who want to prove Joseph Smith wasn’t a prophet is that they often use the very assumptions that will cause the argument to go their way.
Similarly, many people assume that what Joseph Smith says about the facsimiles should match what Egyptologists say. There are many problems with this assumption. First, LDS Egyptologists have found a host of problems with how Egyptology has interpreted these drawings. Second, people are only assuming that Joseph Smith was trying to tell us what the average ancient Egyptian would have said these meant. It seems even more likely that Joseph was telling us how a group of ancient Jews may have interpreted some Egyptian drawings. Or perhaps he was telling us how a select group of ancient Egyptians who incorporated Jewish stories about Abraham and Moses into their own religious practice would have interpreted them (and there definitely was such a group of Egyptians). Or perhaps Joseph Smith was telling us what we should get out of the drawings regardless of how any ancient peoples would have seen them. When our options expand to fit these possibilities, Joseph’s interpretation of those characters actually fits very well into the realm of possible ways to interpret them, and in ways that Joseph could never have known.
All of the questions about the Book of Abraham rest upon assumptions. When we thoroughly examine the assumptions and do good research it has ended up supporting Joseph Smith. I find it interesting that God will not use this issue to force people to believe or disbelieve the role of Joseph Smith. There is more than enough for the rational, educated mind here to support a belief that Joseph was a prophet. There is also more than enough here, depending on your approach, to say that Joseph was not a prophet. So, we are left with a choice of how we will exercise our faith and whether we will trust spiritual promptings and the fruits of the gospel.
Open Response to the Professor’s Reply
It appears the professor is probably saying that we cannot assume two things:
- We cannot assume that the papyri we have now is what Joseph translated.
- We cannot assume that Joseph’s interpretations of the facsimiles should match the Egyptologist interpretations.
As for “faulty” assumption #1, we actually do know that the papyri we have today is what Joseph translated. There is a set of documents that the church has always had in its possession commonly referred to as the “Egyptian Alphabet and Grammar” by Joseph Smith. These documents show a definite link between the papyri and the actual text of the Book of Abraham. There are characters in a left hand column with English explanations to the right. The following diagram on the left shows a copy of the “small sensen” portion of the rediscovered papyri. This portion was originally directly attached to facsimile 1 before it was cut off and sealed behind glass by Joseph Smith and company to preserve the papyri. It was to the left of the papyri (Egyptian reads right to left). The following diagram on the right is from the Egyptian Alphabet & Grammar by Joseph Smith. It has the exact same symbols, in order, from the small sensen papyri and next to it is the apparent translation as it appears in the Book of Abraham that we have as scripture today.
This does appear to show which portions of the papyri the Book of Abraham came from. It certainly makes sense that the piece of papyri directly next to facsimile 1 would be referring to facsimile 1. Also the fact that every symbol from this same piece of papyri is written on the Egyptian Book of Alphabet and Grammar in precisely the same order with the Book of Abraham verses next to each one of the symbols is pretty compelling evidence not to be ignored.
This fragment, called the “small sensen” fragment, was thus used to translate most of Abraham 1-2, shown in Joseph Smith’s Egyptian Book of Alphabet and Grammar. And the actual translation of this fragment has nothing to do with Abraham or what is written in the Book of Abraham.
As for “faulty” assumption #2, considering Joseph Smith’s own statements regarding the Book of Abraham, we should be able to reasonably expect it to be translated correctly and to have been written by Abraham himself. By all accounts, this seems to be a rather fair assumption. Here is what Joseph Smith 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).
Furthermore, when the scrolls were dated, they were not dated at any time even near the time of Abraham, but thousands of years later. This also indicates that Abraham did not write their contents “by his own hand,” as described in our scriptures.
So we should be able to conclude from all of this information that:
- Joseph stated very clearly that the papyrus he translated was written by Abraham.
- Some of the sections which he translated are known today (such as the “small sensen” fragment and the facsimiles).
- Joseph’s translation of these sections do not match what they really mean.
- Therefore, Joseph Smith was incorrect (perhaps even dishonest?) when he said that these papyri were written by Abraham and that he actually translated them.
- Furthermore, it is now known that many parts of the Book of Abraham were actually derived from books that were written in Joseph Smith’s era and which were readily available to him, as will be explained below.
You may find it somewhat concerning to hear things like “we are left with a choice of how we will exercise our faith and whether we will trust spiritual promptings and the fruits of the gospel,” because this may cause people to feel like a choice to question or examine the book means that they are not exercising faith or trusting spiritual promptings, or that they aren’t seeing fruits of the gospel. (See also: Why Have I Felt the Spirit?) Faith, by definition, is a hope in the unseen things that are true. If something isn’t true, then perhaps we cannot correctly call this type of erroneous belief “faith.” All spiritual promptings, if accurate, should and would lead a person in the direction of truth—not error. And finally, unfortunately the “fruits” of the Book of Abraham aren’t all that good: For example, Abraham 1:24-27 is racist.
The Book of Abraham has many historical anachronisms and misconstructions of history. It has also been shown to have been composed of early 19th-century books and notions, such as Philosophy of a Future State and Josephus (some portions of which are even quoted verbatim in the Book of Abraham). We even now know that Hyrum Smith owned a copy of Josephus, as his signature shows:
Thee following source materials were used by Joseph Smith to create the Book of Abraham:
- Abraham 1 comes from Josephus.
- Abraham 2,4-5 come from the 1769 King James Translation of the Bible.
- Abraham 3 comes from Philosophy of a Future State.
- The facsimiles are derived from the Theology of Plato (Thomas Taylor translation).
- The Hebrew names come from Joseph Seixas, whom Joseph hired to give him Hebrew words in 1836.
These source materials were vital to the remix process used by Joseph Smith to create the book we now call scripture.
The following is a most helpful video describing the many issues with the Book of Abraham (including many mentioned in this post) from two different perspectives. I highly recommend that anyone interested in this subject watch the video in its entirety in order to understand the issue from both sides:
In the devotional recommended by the professor, this scripture was emphasized: “Cursed is he who putteth his trust in man.” How ironic it seems that we say this phrase and then imply that we should not doubt Joseph Smith, who was a man. If God’s glory is intelligence, certainly God would want us to use our intelligence to learn truth. Truth does not fear investigation, but error does. It is a cardinal mistake to insist that something is true when it has been clearly shown to be erroneous. One such example occurred while we insisted on being right about our position regarding those of black skin (saying that God had revealed that they were “less valiant” in the pre-existence), when really it turns out we were completely wrong. (See, for example, these letters from the First Presidency.) How much more noble and inspiring it is to acknowledge our faults—and thus grow in truth and spirituality as we transcend error and increase in our capacities to make the world around us a better place.
For a more contextual explanation, see Part 2 of the Gentle Awakening Presentation Series.