The Joseph Smith Papyri and their Relationship to The Book of Abraham
Joseph's Acquisition of the Papyri
The account commonly known and accepted by church members. In 1831 Antonio Lebolo, a "celebrated French traveler" and a resident of northwestern Italy's Piedmont region, after obtaining appropriate governmental approval, employed 433 men for four months and two days and excavated a catacomb (an underground burial site consisting of tunnels and rooms) in Egypt, near the place where once stood the renowned city of Thebes. On June 7, 1831, Lebolo entered the catacomb and obtained eleven mummies in sarcophagi or coffins. While transporting his mummies home in 1832, he became ill. He put in at Trieste in Italy and, after a ten day illness, he died. Before his death, he had drawn up a will and had named his Irish nephew Michael H. Chandler to inherit his new treasure. He thought his nephew was in Ireland, and thus he arranged to send the whole package to Dublin. Meanwhile, Michael Chandler had immigrated to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, a few years previously. Chandler's friends forwarded the mummies to New York, where they were received at the Customs House in the winter or spring of 1833.
Chandler went to the Customs House in New York and claimed his peculiar legacy. He discovered, when he opened the sarcophagi, that in connection with two of the bodies were two rolls of papyrus. Two or three other fragments or papyri were found in association with some of the other mummies. These latter fragments contained astronomical calculations, epitaphs, etc.
Shortly after returning from New York to Philadelphia, Chandler made arrangements to display all of the ancient artifacts in various arcades and museums in the city, charging an entrance fee of 25 cents per adult and 12 ½ cents per child. After several weeks of displaying the mummies in Philadelphia, Chandler took the mummies to Baltimore, Maryland, where they were well received. Later that summer he displayed the mummies in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Soon after receiving the mummies Chandler sold several of them to various buyers in Philadelphia. He had retained only six of the original eleven mummies by the time he traveled to Baltimore.
By the spring of 1835 Chandler's original cache of eleven mummies had dwindled to four. After two years, Chandler, anxious to terminate his transient life-style, advertised in a Cleveland newspaper both the Egyptian exhibit and the fact that the mummies were for sale. At each presentation he inquired if there was anyone who could read Egyptian hieroglyphs. Several times Joseph Smith's name was mentioned, mostly in derision, as one who professed to read Egyptian writings, since the plates of gold were claimed to be engraved in that ancient form of writing. Chandler made arrangements to exhibit his unusual display at Kirtland, located just a few miles east of Cleveland. During the last part of June or the first week of July 1835, Michael Chandler arrived in Kirtland. He brought with him four of his Egyptian mummies and the two rolls of Egyptian papyri covered with hieroglyphic figures.
A more accurate account. The foregoing account of the finding of the mummies and papyri and their acquisition by Michael Chandler is based on account written by Oliver Cowdery after he had interviewed Michael Chandler (HC, 2:348-51). As mentioned above, it is the account most often read and accepted by members of the Church. It contains, however, some significant errors. A more accurate account has been related by Professor John Gee, an Egyptologist at the Brigham Young University:
When Napoleon invaded Egypt in July of 1798, he brought with him an army of French academics including mathematicians, anthropologists, linguists, political scientists, chemists, archaeologists, and others. They began to investigate and publish all that was interesting to science in that singular country. These publications were combined into a major collection of writings in French consisting of eighteen volumes and published under the title of Description de l' Egypte (Description of Egypt). These resulted in widespread interest in Egypt, especially in Europe.
After Napoleon's defeat at Waterloo in June of 1815, one of Napoleon's soldiers, an Italian from the Piedmont area named Antonio Lebolo, had to fend for himself. Stigmatized in his home country for fighting with the French, he abandoned his wife and child and left for Egypt. There he was employed by another Italian from the Piedmont area, a Bernadino Drovetti who had also fought for Napoleon and who had previously served as the French consul general to Egypt. Drovetti employed Lebolo as his agent, sending him on errands to scout for antiquities to loot. At this time, Egyptian archaeology was indistinguishable from tomb robbery. Europeans were, at that time, anxious to acquire Egyptian antiquities for themselves, and men like Lebolo and Drovetti were willing to supply them. The business of robbing tombs for antiquities was characterized by rivalry, dirty dealing, and bribery, and those involved were uniformly unsavory scoundrels.
Among the loot acquired from various tombs, Lebolo kept a small personal collection that he took with him when he retired from the tomb robbery business. In 1822, he returned to his native town of Castellamonte in Italy with a black mistress and a collection of eleven mummies. Upon his untimely death in on February 19, 1830, he passed his collection of Egyptian antiquities to his son, Pietro, who, to earn money, sold them on consignment to Albano Oblasser to sell in America to whomever would purchase them for whatever price they might fetch.
When the mummies arrived in New York, they were purchased in 1833 by one Michael Chandler, who had borrowed a good deal of money to do so. Chandler had hopes of getting rich, but on opening the coffins, he was disappointed to discover they contained little other than the mummies. He had supposed or hoped he might find some diamonds or valuable metal, but he found no such valuables. He did discover that in connection with two of the bodies, there was something rolled up with a kind of linen, saturated with bitumen (a tar-like substance), which, when examined, proved to be two rolls of papyri. Two or three other small pieces of papyrus were also found that contained astronomical calculations, epitaphs, etc. Chandler resolved to earn a living displaying the mummies and the papyri as part of an Egyptian freak show, much like P. T. Barnum would do a few years later. Chandler eventually tired of life on the road and, needing to repay the money he had borrowed to purchase the mummies, decided to sell the collection. After passing through Cleveland, his circuit took him through Kirtland, Ohio. At that time he had only four of the original eleven mummies remaining. Finding a willing buyer in Joseph Smith, Chandler sold the mummies and papyri in July 1835 for $2,400, and he settled down to farming.
Even though Joseph was not aware of the exact content of the papyri at the time of the purchase, he apparently was impressed by the Lord to raise the considerable amount of money being asked for them. Some Kirtland residents were provoked by Joseph's interest and became eager to purchase the mummies and the papyri from Chandler. The $2,400 was a large sum of money, especially when the completion of the temple was so pressing. Two of the saints contributed $800 each, and many other saints with fewer resources contributed the $800 balance. Joseph Smith intended to translate the papyri and was given control of the antiquities.
The translation of the papyri. Shortly after the purchase, Joseph Smith, in company of his scribes, commenced to translate a few of the hieroglyphs. Joseph wrote:
With W. W. Phelps and Oliver Cowdery as scribes, I commenced 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. . . . Truly we can say, the Lord is beginning to reveal the abundance of peace and truth (HC, 2:236).
Joseph described the papyrus containing the record of Abraham as being "beautifully written on papyrus, with black, and a small part red, ink or paint [called rubrics], in perfect preservation" (HC, 2:348-51). As mentioned, Joseph stated that, in addition to the writings of Abraham, the papyri contained a record kept by Joseph in Pharaoh's Court in Egypt.
Joseph began the translation of the papyri in earnest in July of 1835. During that same month the Prophet also mentioned working on a project he called an "Egyptian Alphabet and Grammar." He never explained his methods or his objectives for that project, and it was never mentioned again after July 1835. Joseph left off translating in August 1835 to visit the saints in Michigan. Translation did not commence again until October 1, 1835. The last record of any translation was in November 1835. While Joseph would revise the translation preparatory to its publication in 1842, there is no evidence that he worked on the translation itself after 1835.
There is also no evidence that Joseph used the Urim and Thummim in translating the book of Abraham. Indeed, the Urim and Thummim were probably surrendered to Moroni years previously. Warren Parrish, one of the scribes involved in the translation during late 1835, stated, "I have set by his side and penned down the translation of Egyptian hieroglyphics as he claimed to receive it by direct inspiration of Heaven" (letter to the editor of the Painesville Republican, dated 5 February 1838, in Painesville Republican, 15 February 1838, 3). Joseph clearly regarded the book of Abraham as divine revelation to the saints.
Publishing the book of Abraham. Subsequently the mummies and the papyri were transported to Missouri in the summer of 1838 and then to Illinois in the fall of 1838 with the rest of the saints.
In 1842, over six years after his last known work on the papyri, Joseph finally had time to again turn his attentions to the book of Abraham. Three installments of the book were published in the Times and Seasons beginning in March of 1842-each containing facsimiles, although only the first two installments contained text. Abraham 1:1-2:18 was published in the March 1, 1842 edition; Abraham 2:19-5:21 in the March 16, 1842 edition; and Facsimile 3 in the May 16, 1842 edition. Elder John Taylor indicated in the February 1, 1843 edition of the Times and Seasons that Joseph Smith planned to publish more of the translation. However, Joseph's martyrdom and the events leading up to it prevented this. The Prophet had indicated that writings from Joseph, the son of Jacob, were also found among these papyri (HC, 2:235), but he did not publish any translation of those writings.
The facsimiles accompanying the publication of the book of Abraham were made to size by Reuben Hedlock, the former elders' quorum president in Kirtland. The book of Abraham was also published in the Millennial Star, a publication of the British Mission beginning in July of 1842. It was later included in the first edition of the Pearl of Great Price in 1851.
Further installments of the book of Abraham were promised but never published. Anson Call in his journal said that in 1838 the book of Abraham took about two hours to read out loud, which would seem to mean that it was approximately four times the length of the published version.
The fate of the papyri. After the death of the prophet Joseph in June of 1844, the four mummies and the papyri were entrusted to the care of Lucy Mack Smith, the Prophet's widowed mother. She exhibited the mummies and the papyri until her death and charged the going rate of 25 cents. The Prophet's mother died on May 14, 1856. Meanwhile Emma had remarried. Her new husband was Lewis C. Bidamon. After Lucy Mack's death the mummies and papyri reverted to the care of Emma and Lewis Bidamon. Within two weeks of the death of the Prophet's mother, they sold the mummies and the records to a Mr. Abel Combs, a traveling salesman. Mr. Combs sold two of the mummies with some papyri to the St. Louis Museum in St. Louis, Missouri, in the summer of 1856 (Combs apparently retained for himself some of the fragments of papyri). There they remained until July of 1863 when they were sold to the Wood Museum which later moved to Chicago. The fate of the other two mummies is unknown.
The mummies and papyri remained in the Wood Museum in Chicago until the great Chicago fire of October 1871. It is believed that all of the papyri which were in Chicago at that time were destroyed.
For a long time it was felt that all of the papyri were destroyed, but it was not so. There remained the fragments of papyri that Abel Combs did not sell to the St. Louis Museum. These were willed at his death to his housekeeper, Charlotte Benecke Weaver. These ended up in the possession of the housekeeper's daughter, a Mrs. Alice Heusser of Brooklyn, New York. Alice Heusser approached Albert M. Lythgoe of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City with the papyri in 1918, but Lythgoe decided that the museum was not interested. In the spring of 1946, however, the Metropolitan had a change of heart due, in large measure to the efforts of Ludlow S. Bull. Bull had studied Egyptology at Yale University and he was appointed assistant curator in the Department of Egyptian Art in 1922. He was made associate curator six years later. Bull maintained an interest in the papyri and tried in 1946 to ascertain what had happened to them. By the time Bull returned to acquire the papyri for the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Alice Heusser had died, so Bull negotiated with her widower, Edward Heusser. These were purchased by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.
In 1967 New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art was under the dynamic direction of Thomas Hoving. Hoving wanted the biggest and the best of everything. To get the funds for the biggest and the best, he needed to get rid of the less desirable of the museum's pieces and instructed the various departments to rid themselves of the least historical pieces. This included the Egyptian galleries, which then had a problem: What should they do with the Mormon papyri? Who would want them? Maybe the Mormons would want them back.
Opportunity presented itself in the form of Aziz S. Atiya, a Coptic scholar on the faculty of the University of Utah. On a trip to the Metropolitan Museum of Art to research Coptic objects in its collections, Atiya was approached by Henry Fischer, the curator of the Department of Egyptian Art at the Metropolitan, with a delicate matter. Did he think that the Mormons might be interested in the papyri? Would he approach the Mormons and find out? He would. Atiya approached N. Eldon Tanner, a member of the First Presidency of the Church. Negotiations began in earnest in 1966, but it took a year to get the matter approved through the museum's de-acquisition process. The transfer was then arranged for on November 27, 1967. An anonymous donor gave a gift to the museum, and in exchange the museum gave the Church the papyri.
The newspapers came up with a slightly colored version of this story which was released to members of the Church. This version maintained that Dr. Atiya was in the museum searching through some manuscripts. He found a file which contained Facsimile No. 1, which he recognized from his reading of the Pearl of Great Price. He searched further and "saw more pieces of papyri stacked together and suspected that Providence had assisted" (Jay M. Todd, "Egyptian Papyri Rediscovered," Improvement Era, January 1968, 14).
The file obtained from the Metropolitan Museum of Art consisted of ten fragments of papyri and a bill of sale transferring "four Egyptian mummies with the records of them" from the Prophet's widow to Mr. A. Combs.
The Church published an article about the fragments of papyri obtained from the Metropolitan Museum of Art two months after their acquisition, in February of 1968. In that article the fragments were categorized and numbered, I to XI. The numbering scheme which we use today for the fragments today goes back to that original article.
Let us go back to 1835 and compare what Joseph might have had in his possession then with what was delivered to the Church in 1967 by the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It is believed that the materials that came into possession of the Church in 1835 consisted of four mummies, at least two separate papyrus scrolls or rolls, and a hypocephalus. In 1835 the papyri had been removed from their sarcophagi, and there was no way to associate a particular papyrus with its mummy. Though only two rolls and some odd fragments were described in 1835, the fragments delivered to the Church in 1967 suggest that, in all, parts of four rolls were actually present in the 1835 collection.
1. The Hor roll. One 1835 roll of papyrus contained a Book of Breathings, a sort of abbreviated Book of the Dead, that belonged to a man named Hor the son of Usirwer. By 1967 there had been significant fragmentation and parts became separated into sheets. Some of these were mounted on paper and preserved under glass. The 1967 papyrus fragments that belonged to this roll include fragments I, XI, X (arranged in that order from right to left). Facsimiles 1 and 3 were thought to have been part of this roll. An Egyptologist who saw this papyrus in the Wood Museum, Gustavus Seyffarth, described the opening line of the text on the scroll as "Beginning of the Book of . . .." Unfortunately his description does not allow us to determine exactly which book was included.
Critics of the Church have assumed that this Hor Book of Breathings must have been the manuscript from which the book of Abraham was translated. They give as evidence the fact that illustrations on this manuscript (Facsimiles 1 and 3) had been included in the book of Abraham. The 1967 fragments of this roll contain two damaged lines of hieratic writing (a form of ancient Egyptian writing consisting of abridged forms of hieroglyphics, used by the priests in their records). There are only eighteen characters in all. There is no reason to believe that this roll had anything to do with the book of Abraham.
2. The Tsemminis roll. The second roll in 1835 contained a Book of the Dead belonging to Tsemminis, daugher of Eskhons. This roll also seems to have contained a vignette of a tree, a man, and a woman with a snake standing on its legs with its head in the woman's ear.
The 1967 papyrus fragments that belonged to this roll include fragments VII, VIII, V, VI, IV, and II (arranged in order from right to left) along with papyrus IX whose miscellaneous fragments belong throughout the roll. Twenty-seven chapters from the Book of the Dead are still contained in the remaining fragments.
3. The Neferirtnoub roll. In 1835 this roll contained parts of a Book of the Dead belonging to a woman named Neferirtnoub. From early accounts this roll was described as "a roll as [like] No. 1 [the Tsemminis roll], filled with hieroglyphics, rudely executed" and found on a female mummy. The 1967 fragment III was from this scroll.
4. The Amenhotep roll. This roll in 1835 contained a Book of the Dead belonging to a man named Amenhotep. No 1967 fragments were discovered from this scroll. It is known only from a poor quality partial copy which was made and found among the so called Kirtland Egyptian Papers. The copy suggests that this scroll also contained at least parts of the Book of the Dead. Other copied parts have thus far resisted identification with any know Egyptian text.
The "hypocephalus." In 1835, Joseph also possessed The "hypocephalus" of a man named Sheshonq. Hypocephalus is Greek for "the thing under the head," presumably the head of the dead. The Church does not currently have this in its possession. We have it only in the form of Facsimile 2 in the book of Abraham.
On the basis of the handwriting, the historical period in which the religious writings on these papyri were in use in Egypt, and other historical references to at least one of the original owners of the papyri, these Egyptian documents can be reliably dated to somewhere between 220 and 150 BC.
Professor John Gee, an Egyptologist on the faculty of Brigham Young University has estimated that the fragments obtained from the Metropolitan Museum of Art probably represent about thirteen percent of the papyri Joseph once had in his possession. The remainder was destroyed in the Chicago fire. He also estimates that the original scrolls existed in long rolls measuring 126 inches (about ten feet) by 12 inches.
The Joseph Smith Papyri are generally termed typical funerary documents. Some people assume that if the documents are funerary, they cannot contain anything else. Some Book of the Dead papyri, however, do contain other texts (see John Gee's article, "Eyewitness, Hearsay, and Physical Evidence," in The Disciple as Witness, Essays on Latter-day Saint History and Doctrine in Honor of Richard Lloyd Anderson, ed. Stephen D. Ricks, Donald W. Parry, and Andrew H. Hedges, 192). Just because the preserved sections of the Joseph smith Papyri are funerary in nature does not mean that they could not have had other texts on the missing sections of the rolls. For example, Papyrus Vandier (one described by Posner in 1985) features a Book of the Dead on one side of the papyrus roll and, on the other side, a story about a man name Meryre who was sacrificed on an altar.
Kirtland Egyptian Papers
It seems appropriate to comment on a strange batch of early church papers filed together in a gray cardboard box in the Church Historian's Office. They are all in the handwriting of men associated with Joseph Smith in Kirtland in 1836 and 1837, and all have been classified for one reason or another as "Egyptian." They have therefore been called the "Kirtland Egyptian Papers."
The Kirtland Egyptian Papers have been grouped into two classes of documents: 1. manuscripts containing parts of the book of Abraham, sometimes associated with Egyptian hieratic symbols written in the margins of the text. One these seems to be a printer's manuscript for the very first installment of the book of Abraham.
2. other types of Egyptian manuscripts. In this category, along with a number of odds and ends, is a notable document, a bound manuscript entitled "Grammar and Alphabet of the Egyptian Language."
All of these documents are written in the handwriting of six men: W. W. Phelps, Frederick G. Williams, Warren Parrish, Oliver Cowdery, Willard Richards, and Joseph Smith. The contributions of Richards, Williams, and Joseph Smith are trivial which leaves Phelps, Cowdery, and Parrish as the key operators.
Modern Church scholars have not been able to make much sense out of these documents. No one is sure why they were written, in what context they were created, what was their intended purpose, or what role the prophet Joseph had in their creation. For example, it is not clear what the intended purpose of the "Grammar and Alphabet" was. Was it intended to be a key to translation? If it was, it was a project only barely and timidly begun. It is a bound book but only 34 of 220 pages have entries. The written pages do not run consecutively, but are scattered at intervals throughout the book. The "alphabet" consists of only thirty symbols. There are hundreds of hieroglyphic and thousands of hieratic symbols to choose from. Why only thirty? Of the thirty symbols only one is completely explained.
Scholars have been able only to speculate on the meaning of the Kirtland Egyptian Papers. Perhaps they represented some type of mandatory period of investigation and exploration during which men are required to "study it out in your mind" (D&C 9:8), making every effort to "obtain for themselves" whatever can be so obtained, thereby discovering and acknowledging their own limitations before asking for direct revelation from on high.
Perhaps also the brethren, particularly Phelps and Cowdery, between whom there seemed to be considerable rivalry and jealousy, were trying to use their own gift of translation. And why not? Joseph had always encouraged them to seek their own gifts. He always gave them a free hand. There seemed to be also some degree of jealously of even the Prophet himself among these brethren. They seemed to be impatient of Joseph Smith's scholarly limitations and had been invited by Joseph to surpass him.
There has been much speculation about the Kirtland Egyptian Papers and their relationship to the book of Abraham, especially among critics of the Church. Critics have even claimed that Joseph Smith translated the book of Abraham using the Kirtland Egyptian Papers. But the Kirtland Egyptian Papers were created after the translation of the book of Abraham was complete. As is common with most deciphered ancient languages, the decipherment and translation comes first, and a grammar is written after the text is understood. Therefore, the Kirtland Egyptian Papers, if anything, may have been the result of an effort by the brethren to align the book of Abraham-already received by revelation-with papyri documents in their possession. The question of full participation by Joseph Smith in the creation of the Kirtland Egyptian Papers doubtful.
The Process of Translation
More needs be said regarding the translation of Egyptian records. Basically, Egyptologists have not been able to successfully translate ancient Egyptian texts. Egyptian scholars do have the ability to change hieratic text (again, a form of ancient Egyptian writing consisting of abridged forms of hieroglyphics, used by the priests in their records) into hieroglyphics, and the hieroglyphics can be changed into English phonetic equivalents. The problem is that once this is done, the scholar is left with gibberish or technical jargon of uncertain meaning. This kind of mechanical translation need in no way imply understanding. This has been the repeated experience of many Egyptologists. The ablest Egyptologists have always insisted that the main difficulty that confronts them is not a matter of grammar or vocabulary but a complete ignorance of what the Egyptian writer really had in mind. One scholar said "The difficulty is not in literally translating the text, but in understanding the meaning which lies concealed beneath familiar words" (Peter Le Page Renouf, The Egyptian Book of The Dead, 14). Another Egyptologist wrote, "A certain helplessness in the face of these mythological records is unavoidable to both layman and Egyptologist" (Rudolf Anthes, "Review of Alexandre Piankoff, The Shrines of Tutankh-Amun, 2 volumes" in Artibus Asia 20.1, 1957: 92). No matter how well one knows Egyptian grammar, one may still be totally excluded from the real meaning of any Egyptian text.
What is a translation? We have already demonstrated that a literal translation of Egyptian texts-changing of the text from Egyptian into English-is not generally helpful. Probably the most carefully thought out definition of translation is: "A statement in the translator's own words of what he thinks the author had in mind." A little reflection will show that this is the best if not the only possible definition. A translation must be not a matching of dictionaries but a meeting of minds. This has simply not been possible with ancient Egyptian documents. Every good translator will tell you that after all the aids and implements at his disposal, including his own long training, have been brought to bear, it is, in the last analysis, his own feeling for things that makes a convincing translation. Without intuition he could never make any kind of intelligible translation. If truly scientific translation were possible, machine translation would have been perfected long ago, but where wide gaps of time and culture exist, such a thing as a perfect mechanical translation is out of the question. In the end it is the translator's own imponderable intuition that is his claim to distinction. The most learned technical linguists do not always make the best translators.
Joseph never shared with us the actual method which he used to translate. It is highly unlikely that he translated the book of Abraham in the same way that an Egyptologist would translate. The Prophet never claimed to be operating as a linguist. Rather the translation was given to him by "the gift and power of God"-by revelation. Obviously the most important aspect of "translation" is to tell us what the original author wanted to say. No one ever stated the case more clearly than the prophet Joseph himself when he said concerning 2 Peter 1: "The things that are written are only hints of things which existed in the prophet's mind" (HC, 5:401-02). Joseph did not translate the book of Abraham after the manner of the scholars. He did not have their tools, their abilities, or their problems. He had another method. Consider the introduction to D&C 7: "Revelation given to Joseph Smith the Prophet and Oliver Cowdery, at Harmony, Pennsylvania, April 1829, when they inquired through the Urim and Thummim. . . . The revelation is a translated version of the record made on parchment by John and hidden up by himself." Here we have a translation which Joseph Smith did not make-it was given to him, and he called it a revelation. Yet, it was made from a real document on parchment or treated leather, that John wrote with his hand and then hid away. Another example is the book of Enoch which was made from a document that was never in the Prophet's possession and may indeed have been destroyed thousands of years ago. Did Joseph know the original language of Enoch? Nobody does, but that makes no difference when a translation is not worked out linguistically, but rather given to one by revelation. Yet another example is the book of Moses (Moses 6:26-50 and Moses 7) which was "translated" beginning in June of 1830 when Joseph set out to revise the book of Genesis. Plainly this type of translation depends on the help of the Spirit and is not to be accomplished by intellectual effort alone.
The Book of Mormon was translated in this same way-by the gift and power of God and not by any power of man (see The Process of Translating the Book of Mormon in volume 2, Appendix A of Ye Shall Know of the Doctrine). An interesting question arises from this understanding of the process of "translating" these ancient documents. If all the Prophet had to do was to read off an English text given him by the Lord, why did he even need the original characters in front of him? Apparently, he didn't! "I frequently wrote day after day," Emma Smith recalled, "often sitting at the table close by him, he sitting with his face buried in his hat, with a stone in it, and dictating hour after hour with nothing between us. . . . He used neither manuscript nor book to read from . . . the plates often lay on the table without any attempt at concealment, wrapped in a small linen table cloth" (Emma Smith to Joseph Smith III, 289-90).
Just what was the process of translating the book of Abraham and what is the relationship of the papyri to the book of Abraham? First, let us acknowledge that the 1967 papyri fragments which the Church now owns have nothing on them which relates to the book of Abraham. Critics of Joseph Smith claim this proves he was a fraud. There are three theories which have been put forth to explain how Joseph came to translate the book of Abraham:
1. The missing papyrus theory. Since the papyri fragments in the possession of the Church today account for, at best, thirteen percent of the papyri Joseph Smith possessed in 1835, the reason the book of Abraham does not match the translation of the preserved papyri is that the book of Abraham was translated from a portion of the papyri that is now missing. It was destroyed in the Chicago fire. Perhaps the book of Abraham was the second text on the papyrus of Hor. It must be acknowledged that even the proponents of this theory readily admit that Joseph did not translate an ancient record as an Egyptologist would translate. Rather the process was one of personal revelation. The translation "unfolded" by the gift and power of God. The process was one of revelation not of research. Proponents of this theory would also readily admit that the papyrus from which Joseph translated the book of Abraham was not an autograph by the prophet Abraham. That is, it was not written in his own hand. It, rather, would be a copy handed down over the centuries to eventually be buried with someone who died in Egypt in the second or third century BC.
2. The pure revelation theory. Did the two rolls of Egyptian papyri in the possession of Joseph at the time of the translation of the book of Abraham actually contain the writings of Abraham and ancient Joseph written in the language of the ancient Egyptians? It is difficult to be certain, but perhaps they did not. Perhaps with the papyri functioning as some type of trigger or catalyst, the book of Abraham was given to Joseph by pure revelation. This idea, while worthy of serious consideration, does seem to contradict several statements by the Prophet that he was translating the book of the papyri (HC, 2:235; Jessee, 1989, 2:50, 87, 90). This may be explained by the fact that Joseph never had reason to question that the book of Abraham was coming from the papyri, as he was simply empowered to "translate" them with the papyri laying in front of him. And the book of Abraham resulted.
3. The Kirtland Egyptian Papers theory. There is no substance to this theory as documented from the foregoing materials. It is highly likely that these papers are an after-the-fact byproduct of the translation process.
The meaning of the facsimiles. What about the association of Facsimiles 1 and 3 with the Hor Book of Breathings? A plausible explanation is that the original illustrations drawn by Abraham or prepared under his direction were, over the centuries, modified and adapted for use by Hor, the owner of the papyrus. What Joseph Smith did with the facsimiles is thus similar to the Joseph Smith Translation of the Bible-he provided additional revealed meaning or perhaps even restored the original meaning of Abraham's illustrations. Perhaps he corrected the changes and distortions that had taken place over nearly two millennia. The same, of course, holds true for the hypocephalus-Facsimile 2.
But is there any evidence that, even in distorted form, these illustrations were ever associated with Abraham anciently? There is indeed. In an ancient Egyptian papyrus dating to roughly the first or second century AD there is a lion-couch scene similar to the one shown in Facsimile 1. Underneath the illustration the text reads, "Abraham, who upon . . ." (Johnson, Janet H. "The Demotic Magical Spells of Leiden I 384," 1975, column XIII line 6). There is a break in the text here, so we do not know what word followed. The key point, however, is that an ancient Egyptian document, from approximately the same time period as the papyri Joseph Smith owned, associated Abraham with a lion-couch scene similar to that found in Facsimile 1.
There are more than a hundred examples of hypocephali (like Facsimile 2) in museums around the world. On an Egyptian papyrus of the early Christian period appears the expression "Abraham, the pupil of the eye of the Wedjat" (Griffith, Francis Llewllyn, and Herbert Thompson, Demotic Magical Papyrus of London and Leiden, London: H. Grevel & Co., 1904, column VIII line 8, 64-65). In the 162nd chapter of the Egyptian Book of the Dead, which gives instructions on how to make a hypocephalus, the Wedjat eye is described, and the hypocephalus itself is called an "eye" (Lepsius, Richard, 18452, pl. XXVII). The Apocalypse of Abraham, a pseudepigraphical text dating from the early Christian era, describes a vision Abraham saw while making a sacrifice to God. In this vision he is shown the plan of the universe, "what is in the heavens, on the earth, in the sea, in the abyss, and in the lower depths" (Apocalypse of Abraham, 12). This excerpt is very close to the expression found in Facsimile 2, figures 9, 10, and 11, reading, "O Mighty God, Lord of heaven and earth, of the hereafter, and of this great waters." The similarity to the hypocephalus, which for Egyptians represents the whole of the world in a circular format is striking. There is even a description of what are clearly the four figures labeled number 6 in Facsimile 2 (Ibid., 18). This text also relates how Abraham is promised the priesthood, which will continue in his posterity, and this promise is associated with the temple (Ibid., 25). He is shown the "host of stars, and the orders they were commanded to carry out, and the elements of the earth obeying them" (Ibid., 19). This passage shows a remarkable parallel to the wording in Abraham 4:10; Abraham 4:12; Abraham 4:18; Abraham 4:21, and 25. In The Testament of Abraham, another pseudepigraphical text of the early Christian era, Abraham sees a vision of the Last Judgment that is unquestionable related to the judgment scene pictured in the 125th chapter of the Book of the Dead, thus clearly associating Abraham with the Egyptian Book of the Dead (Testament of Abraham, recension A, 12-13). One of the Joseph Smith papyri is in fact a drawing of this judgment scene from the 125th chapter of the Book of the Dead, and Facsimile 3 portrays a scene closely related to this.
We may summarize this previous paragraph by saying that several ancient Near Eastern documents-roughly contemporary with the hypocephalus and the other Egyptian papyri owned by Joseph Smith-associate Abraham with the scenes portrayed in Facsimiles 1, 2, and 3. Significantly, none of these documents had even been discovered at Joseph Smith's time. These facts strongly support the authenticity of the book of Abraham and Joseph Smith's association of the facsimiles with Abraham.
The Lord's use of objects in the translation process. Why are gadgets or physical devices (Urim and Thummim, seerstone, plates, and papyri) necessary? Why did Joseph Smith need a Urim and Thummim, and why did he go through the greatest pains and perils to get and keep the plates if he didn't really need them? Can't we forget all the hardware and be guided by the Spirit alone? No, because God does not want it that way. Whether we find it agreeable and rational or not, God makes use of both human agents and physical implements in carrying out his purposes in the earth, not because he needs to, but because he wants to help us help ourselves. We are here, among other things, to learn, and we will learn precious little if we get all our solutions from the answer book. We must have our faith tested and our skills improved. In a way, the gadgets or physical devices of translation (Urim and Thummim, seerstone, plates, papyri) are analogous to physical ordinances and rituals. There is nothing of arbitrariness in the Lord's use of these objects. Rather, he is trying to teach those who utilize these gadgets important spiritual truths through the use of them. For a discussion of the Lord's use of physical ordinances and ritual, see The Lord's Use of Ritual, chapter 29 of volume 3 of Ye Shall Know of the Doctrine. See also the commentary for Moses 6:35 in Learning to Love the Pearl of Great Price.
Let those who are still unsure of the proposition that the Spirit works with and through physical devices consider the visits of the Lord to his disciples after the resurrection. On one occasion, he walked with two of them on the road to Emmaus. The Lord himself, of course, is the source of all knowledge and the wellspring of the scriptures themselves. He could well have pushed the dusty books aside and admonished his listeners to heed him alone, from whom all the books came in the first place. Instead of that, "beginning at Moses and all the prophets, he expounded unto them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself" (Luke 24:27). Among the Nephites he called for the records and personally inspected them for errors and omissions, admonishing the people to spend their days reading the words of a prophet who had been dead for seven hundred years-"For great are the words of Isaiah" (3 Nephi 23:1). If the Holy Ghost brings all things to our remembrance, one may well ask, why do we need to record anything at all? Because God has so commanded "for our profit and learning" (1 Nephi 19:23).
We must not think that the Lord, in giving his servants special devices to assist them, was letting them off easy. He did not hand them the answer-book, but only a slide rule. It takes far more formidable qualifications and far more intense concentration and cerebration to use a seer-stone than it does to use a dictionary. The existence in our midst of computers does not mean, as some fondly suppose, that mathematicians and translators and genealogists no longer have to think-they have to think harder than ever. A Urim and Thummim, like a dictionary, is only an aid to the translator who knows how to work it and may gradually be dispensed with as the translator becomes more proficient in his spiritual exercise. Certainly the documents with which Joseph Smith was dealing could be translated in no other way than by the Spirit. How can any mortal ever know what the original first writer of Genesis had in mind save by the power of revelation? And without that knowledge no translation is possible. It was Brother Joseph's calling to interpret the minds of other dispensations to the minds of our own dispensation.
There is evidence that the prophet Joseph's mind may have been imbued with parts of the Book of Abraham even before he sat down with the papyri to translated. He had revised chapters 11-25 of Genesis which are chapters that pertain to Abraham. Therefore the life and times of Abraham were certainly on his mind. One LDS scholar, James R. Harris, has found some writings of Joseph Smith from December 1833 which closely resemble a passage from the Book of Abraham. These are recorded in the "Patriarchal Blessing Book No. 1: "We diligently sought for the right of the fathers and the authority of the holy priesthood, and the power to administer in the same for we desired to be followers of righteousness and the possessors of greater knowledge." This has a striking resemblance to Abraham 1:2: "I sought for the blessings of the fathers, and the right whereunto I should be ordained to administer the same; having been myself a follower of righteousness, desiring also to be one who possessed great knowledge." Brother Harris concluded: "It is this author's contention that the text of the Book of Abraham was already impressed upon the mind and heart of Joseph Smith before he received the papyri collection" (Studies in Scripture, Volume 2, The Pearl of Great Price, 280). It is possible that a papyrus text in the hands of the Prophet was not essential to the production of the translation of the Book of Abraham.
The Book of Abraham-Where and When Was It Written and by Whom?
One interesting question is when was the text of our Book of Abraham originally written and by whom? Most members of the Church, including Dr. Gee, feel that the text was written by the patriarch Abraham, though the papyri from which Joseph Smith translated it need not have been an original autograph penned by the hand of Abraham. Rather it would be the text of a book written by the hand of Abraham that had been handed down for centuries before a manuscript version of it was placed in the sarcophagus near Thebes. A small minority of Latter-day Saint scholars think that the Book of Abraham was written in Hellenistic Egypt by an unknown author (in the few centuries before the time of Christ), and that it was an ancient pseudepigraphon translated by Joseph Smith. Most critics of the Church, of course, think that the Book of Abraham is a modern fabrication by Joseph Smith.
Where did Abraham write the text of the Book of Abraham, and how was it transmitted to that catacomb near Thebes? Of course those who believe that the text dates back to Abraham automatically hold that the manuscript was written in Egypt by the hand of Abraham and that there was no geographic transmission of the text. Or, the only transmission of the text occurred as Egyptians transmitted copies of the text to the catacomb. Those who believe that the text was originally written in Hellenistic Egypt in the second and third centuries BC also automatically believe that there was no transmission of the text. Yet another theory of transmission postulates that the Book of Abraham was written by Abraham and passed down through his descendants, some of whom took a copy to Egypt where it was translated and copied onto a later manuscript.
One may well differentiate the method of translation from the results of translation. It is on the grounds of method that Egyptologists have weighed Joseph Smith in the balance and found him wanting. They maintain, "He was no scholar, he was not one of us, he did not use our methods!" Once the method has been discredited, it has been considered unnecessary to look further into the results of that method. But the Prophet has saved us the trouble of faulting his method of translating by announcing in no uncertain terms that it is a method unique to himself, depending entirely on divine revelation. This still leaves wide open the truly effective means of testing any method, which is by the results it produces. And to this venture we invite any and all-to read and test the Book of Abraham. It mattereth not by what imponderable method Joseph Smith produced his translations, as long as he came up with the right answers. It matters even less from what particular edition of what particular text he was translating. It is enough to know that the Prophet was writing real books of Abraham, Moses, Enoch, Mosiah, and Zenos. We testify enthusiastically that the Book of Abraham is authentic and true, and we invite the world to test it!