Book of Abraham/Papyri/Long article

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Book of Abraham papyri: Long article

This is the original-length article on Joseph Smith papyri.
To read a shorter, summary version, click here.

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In July 1835, Joseph Smith purchased a collection of papyri and mummies that had been discovered in Egypt and brought to the United States. Joseph Smith stated that one of the rolls contained, "the writings of Abraham while he was in Egypt, called the Book of Abraham, purportedly written by his own hand, upon papyrus,"[1] and he commenced a translation of the papyri.

The translated text and facsimiles of three drawings were published in the early 1840s in serial fashion in the LDS newspaper Times and Seasons. The entire work was published in 1852 in England as part of The Pearl of Great Price, which was later canonized as part of LDS scripture.

The original papyri were thought to have been completely destroyed in the Chicago fire of 1871. However, fragments of them, including Facsimile number 1, were discovered in 1967 in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City, and given to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.


Critics of the Book of Abraham attack it from several directions. This article will address these major criticisms:

  • The Joseph Smith papyri date to about the 2nd century, B.C. Latter-day Saints, however (including, perhaps, Joseph Smith), have claimed that the papyri were written by Abraham who lived about 2,000 years earlier.
  • From what may be surmised from the "Kirtland Egyptian Papers" (see below) the surviving Egyptian papyri appear to be the source for the Book of Abraham. Egyptologists, however, agree that these papyri are part of a collection of Egyptian funerary documents known as the Book of Breathings and do not deal with Abraham.
  • Part of the drawings (vignettes) on the papyri have been destroyed. While it appears that Joseph "restored" these missing parts, non-LDS Egyptologists do not recognize these restorations as accurate.

To see citations to the critical sources for these claims, click here


When we critically examine the charges against the Book of Abraham in light of what we now know about ancient Jewish traditions and the adaptation of Egyptian iconography, we find that an ancient Book of Abraham is not only plausible, but believable.

Detailed Analysis

Identity and nature of the papyrus in the Church's possession

There are eleven fragments of the original papyrus owned by Joseph Smith. The initial labels given the fragments came from Hugh Nibley's work.

The fragments that exist and their source are described in the table below, as are other materials of interest to students of the Book of Abraham:

Fragments Source Comments
  • The Hor Breathing permit
  • Facsimile 3 was part of this text; the original is not extant.
  • Sometimes called "Horus" instead of Hor.
  • N/A
  • The Hypocephalus of Sheshonk
  • II
  • V
  • VI
  • VII
  • VIII
  • IX (Church Historian's Fragment)
  • Most of IV
  • The Book of the Dead belonging to the lady Tshenmin.
  • Fragment IX was not in the papyri returned to the Church by the Metropolitan Museum of Art; it was discovered in the Church Archives and is sometimes called the "Church Historian's Fragment."
  • IIIa
  • IIIb
  • The Book of the Dead belonging to the musician of Amon Re, Neferimub.
  • This is a single vignette, but has been cut into two pieces; hence the designation as (a) and (b) fragments.
  • N/A
  • Another copy of Book of the Dead.
  • Only known from characters copied into the Kirtland Egyptian Papers (see below).

The date of the Book of Abraham vs. the date of the papyrus

When Joseph Smith obtained the papyri in 1835, he reportedly said that "one of the rolls contained the writings of Abraham...."[2] According to Joseph's scribes, this scroll was "written" by Abraham's "own hand upon papyrus."[3] It seems reasonable to conclude that Joseph believed that Abraham himself, with pen in hand, wrote the very words that he was translating. The problem is that most modern scholars (including LDS scholars) date the papyri to a few centuries before Christ, whereas Abraham lived about two millennia before Christ. Obviously, Abraham himself could not have penned the papyri.

This issue is very similar to that of Book of Mormon geography. It is very likely that Joseph Smith believed in a hemispheric Book of Mormon geography—it made sense to his understanding of the world around him. Such a misinformed belief makes him no less a prophet; it simply provides us with an example of how Joseph—like any other human—tried to understand new information by integrating it with his current knowledge. So, likewise, with the Abrahamic papyri: Joseph, by way of revelation, saw that the papyri contained scriptural teachings of Abraham. It would be natural, therefore, to assume that Abraham wrote the papyri. But, some will ask, how could the teachings of Abraham be present on a document written two thousand years after Abraham lived? As Gee notes, we find the same thing with Biblical manuscripts. There is a major difference, he explains, "between the date of a text [the information contained on the papyri] and the date of a manuscript [the papyri itself]."[4]:15

The date of a text is the date when the text was written by its author. A text can be copied into various manuscripts or translated into other languages, and these manuscripts or translations will have different, later dates than the date of the original text. When we refer to the date of a text, we refer to the date of the original text. For example, the text of the Gospel of Matthew was written in the first century A.D., but the earliest manuscript that we have of Matthew was copied in the third century.[4]:23-24

If, for example, one held out a modern LDS Bible and pointing to 1 Corinthians asked, "Who penned this book?" most people would respond with, "Paul." The copy of the scriptures, however, was printed within the last few decades, and the English wording is based on what King James scholars decided that the ancient biblical manuscripts said. Paul, himself, did not pen any modern printing of the scriptural book even if he did author the original text. How can we fault Joseph for basically stating the same thing?

Some LDS scholars propose that the original Book of Abraham "text" was written by Abraham and then "passed down through his descendants (the Jews), some of whom took a copy to Egypt where it was copied (after being translated) onto a later manuscript."[4]:28 Such a proposal makes a lot of sense since we recognize that this the typical provenance of most Biblical documents. As Dr. John Gee (PhD, Egyptology, Yale) notes, "some of the texts in the Book of the Dead manuscripts from the same time as the Joseph Smith Papyri (and even later) are also attested in manuscripts that go back before the time of Abraham."[5]

The Kirtland Egyptian Papers

Among the early Book-of-Abraham-related-manuscripts that have survived from the days of Joseph Smith are a number of papers collectively referred to as the "Kirtland Egyptian Papers" (KEP). These pages were written while the Saints lived in Kirtland, Ohio, and were recorded in the general time frame that Joseph was translating the Book of Abraham. They are in the same handwriting of several of Joseph's scribes.

There are at least two evidences which demonstrate an obvious connection between some of the Kirtland Egyptian papers and the Book of Breathings scroll from the Joseph Smith Papyri (JSP).

Like the Hebrews, the Egyptians read right to left. The "Scroll of Hor"-- which is the Book of Breathings scroll in the JSP collection-- begins (at the right end) with Facsimile 1 (as recorded in the Book of Abraham) followed by Egyptian characters.

Some of the KEP are divided by a vertical line at the left side of the paper. About three fourths of the paper is to the right of each line. To the left of the line are Egyptian characters. These are the same characters that follow Facsimile 1 of the Book of Breathings(these would be to the left of the vignette). To the right of the vertical line (on the Kirtland papers) appear to be "translations" of the Egyptian character on the left.

Secondly, we read in the Book of Abraham:

...that you may have a knowledge of this altar, I will refer you to the representation [Facsimile 1] at the commencement of this record." (Abraham 1:12-- keeping in mind that the scroll would have been read from right to left to and Facsimile 1 is virtually the first item at the right end of the scroll.)

On the surface, these two evidences suggest that the Scroll of Hor is the source of the Book of Abraham.

The critics also claim that, since the Scroll of Hor is a fairly typical Book of Breathings scroll, we would know that the entire scroll would not be much longer than the extant portions of the papyrus fragments; therefore, what we have is virtually all there was of this particular papyrus.

A superficially plausible initial assumption is that the KEP represent Joseph's attempt to translate the hieroglyphics from those portions that are still extant. Critics attempt to trouble the Saints, however, with the fact that Egyptologists tell us that the "translations" do not accurately reflect the meanings of the hieroglyphics. In some cases, several paragraphs of English text (the English translation of the Book of Abraham) are written in what appears to be an English translation of these Egyptian characters (in some instances, one character seems to yield several sentences of English text). To the critics, this is proof that Joseph was a false prophet.

There is, however, a more likely scenario that is compatible with Joseph's prophetic claims. Many LDS scholars have claimed that the Kirtland Egyptian Papers are an example of a backwards translation. In other words, Joseph translated the Book of Abraham prior to the creation of the KEP and then he, and other early LDS brethren, tried to match the translated text to what they believed were the characters that were used to elicit the translation. In this scenario the KEP was not the product of revelation, but was rather an attempt to "study out" the translation, after-the-fact, in what might have been an experiment to create an Egyptian alphabet.[6] In essence, Joseph and his friends were trying to "reverse engineer" the translation of Egyptian script using the inspired translation he had already produced. The men at Kirtland were treating the Book of Abraham as a sort of Rosetta Stone from which they hoped to crack the code for Egyptian (which was largely untranslatable by scholars of the time.)

But why would it appear that Joseph thought these Egyptian characters translated into Abrahamic scripture when they clearly do not?

A Jewish redactor

It should first be undestood that we do not have all the papyri that Joseph Smith had when he translated the Book of Abraham. Some of the papyri were burned in the Chicago fire and it's possible that other fragments were lost or destroyed elsewhere. Yale-trained Egyptologist, Dr. John Gee, believes that Joseph Smith originally had five papyrus scrolls (one of which was the hypocephalus).[7] Of these five scrolls, only eleven fragments of two scrolls have survived. The "Scroll of Hor" (the Egyptian Book of Breathings) from where we get Facsimile 1 (and almost certainly Facsimile 3—which didn't survive) is incomplete.

Dr. Nibley writes:

We are told that papyri were in beautiful condition when Joseph Smith got them, and that one of them when unrolled on the floor extended through two rooms of the Mansion House.[8]

Nothing like this has survived today. Dr. Gee estimates that the Scroll of Hor (likely the putative [supposed] source for the Book of Abraham) may have been ten feet long[4]:12-13 and that in all, Joseph may have had eight times as much papyri as what is currently extant.[9] A number of scholars contend that the reason that the extant papyrus fragments don't have anything to do with the Book of Abraham is because we don't have that portion of the papyrus that served as the text from whence Joseph translated the Book of Abraham. At the very least, the critics ought to be cautious if only 13% of the ancient scrolls are currently known!

And while it's true that the extant portions of the JSP are from the Book of the Dead and the Book of Breathings and do not, according to Egyptologists, translate to anything like the LDS Book of Abraham, this doesn't necessarily mean that the translation didn't derive from Joseph's papyri.

There are other scenarios that are compatible with Joseph's claims. We know from other sources, for instance, that sometimes scrolls were attached together. To quote Gee:

Some people assume that if the documents [JSP] are funerary they cannot contain anything else. Some Book of the Dead papyri, however, do contain other texts. For example, a fragmentary Eighteenth-Dynasty Book of the Dead in Cairo...contains account texts on the front side (recto) [with the Book of the Dead on the back side]. Papyrus Vandier also has a Book of the Dead on the verso (back side), but the recto contains the story of Meryre, who was sacrificed on an altar (an intriguing similarity to the Book of Abraham). The Book of the Dead of Psenmines...and Pawerem...both contain temple rituals. Both Papyrus Harkness and BM 10507 (demotic funerary papyri) contain several different texts. 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, either on the verso or on missing sections of the rolls.[10]

It is therefore possible that the Book of Abraham manuscript was attached to the Book of Breathings. But why? Why would an important Semitic document be attached to a pagan (Egyptian) funerary text?

Kevin Barney posits that the Book of Abraham material was passed on through the generations from Abraham to Jews of the 2nd century B.C.—or the Ptolemaic period—just as Old Testament scriptures were passed on to later generations. Sometime in the Ptolemaic period, a hypothetical Jewish redactor (editor), whom Barney labels "J-red" attached the Book of Abraham to the Egyptian papyri. Why? Because of the useful symbolism contained on the Egyptian funerary text.

This claim is supported by at least three known ancient Jewish texts. Barney notes that many Biblical scholars believe that an ancient Egyptian book—the Instructions of Amenemope—may have been the source for parts of the biblical book of Proverbs.[11]:115-116

The ancient "Testament of Abraham" has several similarities to the LDS Book of Abraham. The book also has strong similarities to an Egyptian papyrus related to the Book of the Dead. For example, notes Barney, it is widely recognized that a judgment scene described in the Testament of Abraham was

influenced by an Egyptian psychostasy ("soul weighing") papyrus.... It may even be that the author [of the Testament of Abraham] was gazing on such a psychostasy papyrus when he penned his account. But while there is a clear relationship between the Egyptian psychostasy scene and the judgment scene of the Testament of Abraham, the scene has been transformed to accord with Semitic needs and sensibilities. Osiris [Egyptian god] has become Abel; the Egyptian gods have become angels. Our author looks at the Egyptian illustration, yet sees a situation peopled with Semitic characters.[11]:117-118

Note the Osiris-Abel connection, to which we will return below.

The third example comes from the book of Luke's story of the rich man and Lazarus. In this tale, the beggar Lazarus ate the crumbs that fell from a rich man's table. When Lazarus died, angels carried him to Abraham's bosom. When the rich man died, he awoke in Hell but could see—far away—Lazarus in the bosom of Abraham. The rich man begged Abraham to send the dead Lazarus to his brothers so that they would repent and not befall the same terrible fate. (See Luke 16:19–31).

Scholars have shown that this story is based on a popular Jewish tale, written in Hebrew, but ultimately based on an Egyptian story. In the original Egyptian legend, the names are different (as are some of the general details of the story) but the basic account and moral is the same. In the Egyptian version, however (the version upon which the Hebrew tradition depends), Osiris plays the part later adapted (by Jews) to Abraham.[12] It seems that the early Jews had no problem adapting the pagan god Osiris to important Judaic figures such as Abel or Abraham.

Not only do we see, in the Book of Luke, a Jewish adaptation of an Egyptian judgment scene, but we also find some interesting parallels to Facsimile 1 from the Book of Abraham. In this vignette, Joseph identified the figure lying on the lion couch as Abraham. Egyptologists, however, identify the figure as Osiris.[13] Based on an early Judaic adaptation of Facsimile 1, Joseph got it exactly right.

Instead of focusing on how Egyptians of the 2nd century B.C. or 2000 B.C. understood the motifs, Barney convincingly argues that Abraham did not draw the facsimiles (which date nearly two thousand years after Abraham lived) but that these Egyptian vignettes "were either adopted [copied wholesale as the Egyptians drew them] or adapted [altered to more accurately reflect the Semitic perspective] by an Egyptian-Jewish redactor as illustrations of the attempt on Abraham's life and Abraham's teaching astronomy to the Egyptians."[11]:114 Barney argues that we should focus our attention on understanding how Jews of the 2nd century B.C. understood the Egyptian graphics.

In Facsimile 1 (the lion couch scene), for instance, under the floor there is a crocodile. Under the crocodile are numerous vertical lines. Joseph interpreted these lines as representing the "pillars of heaven." Egyptologists, however, tell us that this is incorrect. These lines really signify the palace façade. The etched lines around the crocodile signify, according to Joseph, "Raukeeyang" or "the expanse or firmament over our heads," or the high "heavens." Egyptologists, however, tell us that the lines are simply waters in which the crocodile swims. So according to an Egyptian interpretation, Joseph got it all wrong.

What if we compare Joseph's interpretation to how 2nd century B.C. Jews might have understood the scene? Firstly, Joseph's "Raukeeyang" is very similar to the Hebrew word for "expanse."[11]:123[14] "In Hebrew cosmology," writes Barney, "the Hebrew 'firmament' was believed to be a solid dome, supported by pillars." Recall the vertical lines in the vignette. This, "in turn was closely associated with the celestial ocean, which it supported." And remember that in Facsimile 1 it appears that the pillars are under the water in which the crocodile swims.

In the lower half of Facsimile 1, we have [the firmament]...(1) connected with the waters, as with the celestial ocean, (2) appearing to be supported by pillars, and (3) being solid and therefore capable of serving itself as a support, in this case for the lion couch. The bottom half of Facsimile 1 would have looked to J-red very much like a microcosm of the universe (in much the same way that the divine throne chariot of Ezekiel 1–2, which associates the four four-faced fiery living creatures with the [firmament]...above their heads on which God sits enthroned, is a microcosm of the universe).[11]:123

If we accept a Jewish redactor adapting Egyptian motifs to a Hebrew understanding, we can easily appreciate the possibility that "J-red" attached the Book of Abraham manuscript to the Book of Breathings in order to graphically convey the doctrines portrayed in the manuscript. Barney gives this useful comparison to the Book of Mormon:

The gold plates were untouched by human hands from the time Moroni deposited them in a stone box in the fifth century A.D. until Joseph's retrieval of the cache in 1827. Prior to that time, however, the records of the Book of Mormon peoples underwent an express redaction [abridgement or editing] process at the hands of Mormon and Moroni. Similarly, the papyrus source for the Book of Abraham sat untouched from the time it was deposited in the tomb during Greco-Roman age until Lebolo retrieved it [about 1820]. Before that time, though, it circulated among people and was subject to normal transmission processes. My hypothetical redactor, J-red, was in essentially the same position with respect to the Book of Abraham as Mormon was with respect to the Book of Mormon.[11]:126

The Egyptians, like the Hebrews, wrote from right to left. And while Joseph didn't know Egyptian, he was (at this point in his life) studying Hebrew and he may have assumed that the Egyptians wrote in the same direction. At the right end of the scroll (the beginning of the scroll), we find Facsimile 1. Abraham referred the Facsimile ("the representation") at the beginning of "this record." To the Joseph, and other early Saints, this would have seemed to indicate that the "record" of Abraham was part of the early portion of the scroll and thus they began their backwards translation from this point. In reality, however, "this record" probably referred to the beginning of the combined scrolls (that begins with Facsimile 1) but not the beginning of the Abrahamic text (which would have been appended to the Book of Breathings scroll).[11]:127

It must be remembered that Joseph could not read Egyptian. He did not "translate" in the normal sense—as evidenced by his after-the-fact effort to reverse engineer Egyptian via his divinely-given translation. He translated by the power of God. It is possible that Joseph, at times, translated the Book of Mormon while the plates were covered, or perhaps even while the plates were removed from the room.

While an actual Book of Abraham manuscript could have been appended to the Book of Breathings manuscript, it is significant to recognize that revelation was the method by which the text was translated. This realization allows for still other possibilities. If, for example, the appended Abrahamic scroll was damaged, Joseph would still have been able to "translate" the text. If the appended scroll was partially missing, the "translation" might not have suffered. It's also possible that Joseph, in the process of creating the KEP, looked at the Egyptian characters and—thinking that they were the Egyptian symbols composed by Abraham—proceeded to "translate" from these characters. In such a scenario the actual Book of Abraham translation could still be based on a real manuscript, but not on what Joseph thought was the manuscript. In any case, we need not reject Joseph's prophetic calling or ability to translate.

Restoring gaps in the drawings

Photograph of Facsimile 1 from the recovered Joseph Smith Papyri
Examination of the extant papyri fragments reveals that portions of Facsimile 1 (the only facsimile that survived) are damaged. For a number of years, scholars have debated whether the facsimile was damaged before or after Joseph acquired the papyri. It seems that the Book of Breathings scroll (containing Facsimile 1) was marred by a lacuna—a missing portion—that had torn off the scroll. The debate over the date of the lacuna directly relates to the images on Facsimile 1. This vignette—as shown in the LDS Book of Abraham—shows a figure (interpreted as Abraham) lying on a lion couch with arms raised as if attitude of pleading or prayer. The figure standing over Abraham is a bald man (presumably an Egyptian priest) with a knife in one hand—as if he was about to kill Abraham. Flying just above Abraham is a hawk (or falcon) with outstretched wings. The scroll's lacuna extends over an area which includes the Egyptian priest's head, the knife, and one of Abraham's supplicating arms.

Since Facsimile 1 appears to be a fairly typical scene from Egyptian funerary texts, the critics note that other similar Egyptian motifs depict the priest (an embalmer) with the head of Anubis (an Egyptian god) rather than a bald, human head. Other comparable Egyptian embalming scenes do not show the priest holding a knife, they do not show any man pleading or praying, and they generally show two hawks. It is claimed that Joseph Smith drew in the missing parts by adding (incorrectly) those things which we find in the LDS version of this Egyptian scene. What Joseph saw as fingers of Abraham's outstretched hands, for instance, were actually (according to the critics) the wing-tips of the missing second hawk.

Many LDS scholars believe that the scroll was damaged after Joseph translated the vignette and some evidence seems to support this view. One early Latter-day Saint who saw the papyri in 1841, for instance, described them as containing the scene of an altar with "'a man bound and laid thereon, and a Priest with a knife in his hand, standing at the foot, with a dove over the person bound on the Altar with several Idol gods standing around it.'"[15] Similarly, Reverend Henry Caswall, who visited Nauvoo in April 1842, had a chance to see some of the Egyptian papyri. Caswall, who was hostile to the Saints, described Facsimile 1 as having a "'man standing by him with a drawn knife.'"[16]

The critics, however, claim that evidence supports a belief that the scroll was already damaged prior to Joseph's involvement and that Joseph merely sketched in the parts missing in the lacuna. It's seems apparent, for example, that the lacuna descends several layers into the rolled scroll (the larger tear is at the first—or top—part, and the same outlined tear—only smaller—appears in the lower layers). Non-LDS Egyptologists do not think Joseph's "restoration" accurately reflects what was originally shown on the papyri, and in at least some instances, it seems that Joseph invented hieroglyphic characters to fill in for missing characters lost by the lacuna. This suggests that part of the scroll's tore/fell away when it was first unrolled and prior to Joseph's translation. For the sake of argument, let us grant the theory proposed by the critic—that the lacuna was present prior to Joseph making a translation and that Joseph (or some other early leader) "restored" the missing information.

Some considerations: there is at least some evidence that the LDS version has precedence in ancient Egyptian drawings. Some LDS researchers, for instance, have argued that the fingers/wing-tips look significantly more like fingers (according to Egyptian drawings) than hawk wing-tips. A number of scholars have noted that the Egyptians were very specific in how they drew wings and thumbs.[4]:38

It's also interesting to note that although embalming priests are typically drawn with Anubis heads in Book of Breathings motifs, other Egyptian graphics show that Egyptian priests are represented as bald and that Anubis heads were worn as masks to emulate the gods.[17] When compared to other Egyptian drawings, some of the Book of Abraham restorations are plausible.

Another consideration: We don't know that Joseph was the responsible party for sketching in the missing portions of Facsimile 1. It is possible that one of Joseph's contemporaries "restored" the missing parts, or it is possible that "J-red" or some other Jewish copyist "restored" the parts in order to more closely approximate the details conveyed by the Abrahamic text. It is certainly also possible that Joseph "restored" the missing parts either because they were in the original papyri—as edited by "J-red"—or because Joseph felt that such restorations more accurately reflected the Book of Abraham's intended use of the graphic as pertaining to the details discussed in the text.

Joseph's amendments to later editions of the Book of Mormon and the Doctrine & Covenants, and even the Joseph Smith Translation of the Bible, are all instructive when we compare the graphical alterations in Facsimile 1. In each case, Joseph Smith—by way of revelation, inspiration, or prophetic analysis—"restored" or amended scripture to more closely approximate the additional insights he had gleaned by divine revelation.

Another possibility is that Joseph, Reuben Hedlock (the engraver), or someone else simply filled in the lacunae in the papyri the best he could for purposes of publication. Modern documentary editing standards would require that any holes or gaps in the papyri be represented as such, but the Book of Abraham was published long before the rise of such standards. Just as it was the practice of the day to edit out infelicities rather than to preserve them (as modern scholars do), so it would have been thought unattractive to publish incomplete or marred facsimiles. If this is the correct explanation, one need not suppose that the textual repair for purposes of publication was the result of revealed insight.

Evidence for the antiquity of Joseph's Book of Abraham

There is evidence from antiquity—both in the Abrahamic tradition and in the Jewish recontextualization of Egyptian vignettes and dramas—which lend support to the claim that Joseph translated (albeit by unconventional means) the Book of Abraham from an authentic ancient source.

While Book of Abraham "translations" and "restorations" of the damaged vignettes do not seem to square with the translations of non-LDS Egyptologists, there are several instances when Joseph did get some of the details correct. This is no small thing considering that neither Joseph, nor any one to whom he had access, could translate Egyptian.

The Sons of Horus

Facsimile 2 (shown between Chapters 3 and 4 of the Book of Abraham in the LDS Pearl of Great Price), is known as a hypocephalus ("under the head") and was a small disk-shaped object that was placed under the head of the deceased. The Egyptians "believed it would magically cause the head and body to be enveloped in flames or radiance, thus making the deceased divine."[18] In this drawing (or vignette), stand four mummy-like figures known—to Egyptologists—as the Sons of Horus. Their images were also on the canopic jars (the jars that stored the internal organs of the deceased) that we see under the lion couch in Joseph Smith's Facsimile 1. Joseph revealed that these four figures represented "this earth in its four quarters." According to modern Egyptologists, Joseph Smith is correct. The Sons of Horus "were the gods of the four quarters of the earth and later came to be regarded as presiding over the four cardinal points."[18]

Abrahamic traditions

Years ago, Dr. Nibley pointed out that the critics neglect the ancient Near Eastern Abrahamic traditions that support the story found in the Book of Abraham.[19] Ancient Abrahamic lore and Jewish traditions preserved in ancient texts, show some surprising parallels to what we find in the text of the Book of Abraham. Some of these parallels imply that Joseph (who likely could not have had access to many of these traditions) actually restored authentic ancient Abrahamic traditions. Some of these parallels include early Jewish traditions about Abraham's life—details not found in the Bible.[20] Two such ancient documents that show some surprising parallels to our Book of Abraham are the Apocalypse of Abraham[21] and the Testament of Abraham[22] (the Apocalypse of Abraham dates to about the same time as the Book of Abraham papyri).

Other interesting parallels include ancient names and astronomy. Ancient Egyptian names, for example, that would have been unknown to Joseph Smith, are accurately represented in the Book of Abraham both phonetically as well as in meaning.[14] With regard to astronomy, we find that in Joseph Smith's day "heliocentricity" (as proposed by Copernicus and Newton) was the accepted astronomical view. Nineteenth-century people (including the most brilliant minds of the day) believed that everything revolved around the Sun—therefore the term "heliocentric" (Greek helios=sun + centered). (In the twentieth-first century we generally accept an Einsteinian view of the cosmos.) The Book of Abraham, however, clearly delineates a geocentric view of the universe—or a belief that the Earth (Greek geo) stood at the center of the universe, and all things moved around our planet.

According to ancient geocentric cosmologies and what we read in the Book of Abraham, the heavens (which is defined as the expanse above the earth—no celestial object is mentioned to exist below the earth) was composed of multiple layers or tiers—each tier higher than the previous. Therefore the Sun is in a higher tier than the moon, and the stars are in higher tiers still (compare Abraham 3:5, 9, 17).[21]:5 According to geocentric astronomy, celestial objects have longer time spans (or lengths of "reckoning") based upon their relative distance from the earth. "Thus, the length of reckoning of a planet is based on its revolution [time to orbit around the center, in this case the earth](and not rotation [time to spin on its axis, as the earth does every 24 hours])."[21]:8 The higher the celestial object, the greater its length of reckoning (compare Abraham 3:5). Likewise, in Abraham 3:8–9, we read that "there shall be another planet whose reckoning of time shall be longer still; And thus there shall be the reckoning of the time of one planet above another, until thou come nigh unto Kolob."

Ancient geocentric astronomers believed that the stars were "the outer-most celestial sphere, furthest from the earth and nearest to God."[21]:9 We find in the Book of Abraham that the star Kolob was the star nearest "the throne of God" (Abraham 3:9). In the ancient, yet recently discovered, Apocalypse of Abraham (which dates from about the same time period as the JSP), we find that God's throne is said to reside in the eighth firmament (the firmaments, being another term for the varying tiers in the heavens above the Earth).[21]:9

The Book of Abraham also reveals that those celestial objects that are highest above the earth, "govern" the objects below them (see Abraham 3:3, 9 and Facsimile 2, fig. 5). This sounds similar to the beliefs of those who accepted an ancient geocentric cosmology:

Throughout the ancient world the governing role of celestial bodies was conceived in similar terms. God sits on his throne in the highest heaven giving commands, which are passed down by angels through the various regions of heaven, with each region governing or commanding the regions beneath it.[21]:10

We find this governing order described in the Apocalypse of Abraham and other ancient sources. All of this makes sense only from an ancient geocentric perspective (such as that believed in Abraham's day) and makes no sense from a heliocentric perspective (which is what Joseph would have known in his day).

A different interesting parallel comes from Facsimile 1 (Abraham on the lion couch). According to Egyptologists, this is a typical Egyptian embalming scene and has nothing to do with Abraham or sacrifice. In fact, the critics assure us, Abraham is not a topic of discussion in Egyptian papyri, and there is no connection with Abraham and the embalming lion couch.

Recent discoveries, however, suggests that the Biblical Abraham does appear in some Egyptian papyri that date to the same period as the JSP. In one instance (thus far discovered) Abraham's name appears to have a connection to an Egyptian lion couch scene.[4]:12-13

The stories and worldviews we find in the translated text of our Book of Abraham coincide nicely with what we find from ancient Abrahamic lore. Joseph Smith demonstrated extensive knowledge of these areas, which he then integrated into a theologically rich whole.


  1. Joseph Smith, History of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 7 volumes, edited by Brigham H. Roberts, (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1957), 2:235, 236, 348–351. 236, 348 Volume 2 link
  2. Joseph Smith, History of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 7 volumes, edited by Brigham H. Roberts, (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1957), 2:236. Volume 2 link
  3. Michael H. Marquardt, "A Book Note—Hugh Nibley's Abraham in Egypt," (2000).
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 4.3 4.4 4.5 John Gee, A Guide to the Joseph Smith Papyri (Provo, Utah: FARMS, 2000).
  5. John Gee, personal communication to FAIR editors, 10 August 2007, cited with permission.
  6. Hugh W. Nibley, "The Meaning of the Kirtland Egyptian Papers," Brigham Young University Studies 11 no. 1 (Summer 1971), 350–399. off-site
  7. John Gee, "Research and Perspectives: Abraham in Ancient Egyptian Texts," Ensign (July 1992), 60.; John Gee, "Abracadabra, Isaac and Jacob (Review of The Use of Egyptian Magical Papyri to Authenticate the Book of Abraham: A Critical Review by Edward H. Ashment)," FARMS Review of Books 7/1 (1995): 19–84. off-site
  8. Hugh W. Nibley, "Phase One," Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 3 no. 2 (Summer 1968), 101.
  9. John Gee, "Facsimile 3," lecture given at the FARMS Book of Abraham Conference (16 October 1999), personal notes of conference talks by Michael Ash; see also, John Gee, "The Ancient Owners of the Joseph Smith Papyri" (Provo: FARMS, 1999), 1.
  10. John Gee, "Eyewitness, Hearsay, and Physical Evidence of the Joseph Smith Papyri," in The Disciple As Witness: Essays on Latter-Day Saint History and Doctrine in Honor of Richard Lloyd Anderson, edited by Richard Lloyd Anderson, Stephen D. Ricks, Donald W. Parry, and Andrew H. Hedges, (Provo, Utah: FARMS, 2000), 192.
  11. 11.0 11.1 11.2 11.3 11.4 11.5 11.6 Kevin L. Barney, “The Facsimiles and Semitic Adaptation of Existing Sources,” in John Gee and Brian M. Hauglid (editors), Astronomy, Papyrus, and Covenant (Provo, Utah: Brigham Young University, 2006).
  12. Barney, "The Facsimiles," 119–21; Blake T. Ostler, "Abraham: An Egyptian Connection" (FARMS paper, 1981)
  13. Charles M. Larson, By His Own Hand Upon Papyrus: A New Look at the Joseph Smith Papyri, 2nd ed., (Grand Rapids, MI: Institute for Religious Research, 1992), 102.
  14. 14.0 14.1 See John A. Tvedtnes, "Authentic Ancient Names and Words in the Book of Abraham and Related Kirtland Egyptian Papers," presentation at the 2005 FAIR Conference
  15. William I. Appleby Journal, 5 May 1841, ms. 1401 1, pp. 71–72, LDS Church Archives; as quoted in Gee, "Eyewitness, Hearsay, and Physical Evidence," 184.
  16. Rev. Henry Caswall, The City of the Mormons: Or, Three Days at Nauvoo in 1842 (London: Rivington, 1842), 71-72., LDS Church Archives; as quoted in Gee, "Eyewitness, Hearsay, and Physical Evidence," 184.
  17. Kerry A. Shirts, "On Anubis, Masks, and Uniqueness of Facsimile #1 in the Book of Abraham.
  18. 18.0 18.1 Michael D. Rhodes, "The Joseph Smith Hypocephalus...Twenty Years Later."
  19. Hugh W. Nibley, "The Unknown Abraham," Improvement Era (January 1969), 26.
  20. See Traditions About the Early Life of Abraham, edited by John A. Tvedtnes, Brian M. Hauglid, and John Gee, (Provo: FARMS, 2001).
  21. 21.0 21.1 21.2 21.3 21.4 21.5 }For some of the parallels see Hugh W. Nibley, Abraham in Egypt, 2nd edition, (Vol. 14 of the Collected Works of Hugh Nibley), edited by Gary P. Gillum, Illustrated by Michael P. Lyon, (Salt Lake City, Utah : Deseret Book Company ; Provo, Utah : Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 2000),8–40. ISBN 157345527X.; John Gee, William J. Hamblin, and Daniel C. Peterson, “'And I Saw the Stars': The Book of Abraham and Ancient Geocentric Astronomy,” in John Gee and Brian M. Hauglid (editors), Astronomy, Papyrus, and Covenant (Provo, Utah: Brigham Young University, 2006),1–16. ISBN 0934893764. off-site
  22. See Jeff Lindsay, "Could there have been a real Egyptian scroll that actually, literally discussed Abraham?" (accessed 23 September 2005) off-site; Michael D. Rhodes, "The Book of Abraham: Divinely Inspired Scripture (Review of By His Own Hand upon Papyrus: A New Look at the Joseph Smith Papyri by Charles M. Larson)," FARMS Review of Books 4/1 (1992): 120–126. off-site; Hugh Nibley, "The Facsimiles of the Book of Abraham," Sunstone no. (Issue #4) (December 1979), 49–51. off-site off-site

Further reading and additional sources responding to these claims

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