Book of Abraham/Joseph Smith Papyri

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    The Joseph Smith Papyri

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There are a number of criticisms related to the recovered fragments of the Joseph Smith papyri. These criticisms are addressed below.

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

Source documents


John Gee"Book of Abraham, I Presume," Proceedings of the 2012 FAIR Conference (August 2012)

So let’s start with the relationship of the Book of Abraham to the Joseph Smith Papyri. There are three different points of view here. One, that Joseph Smith translated the Book of Abraham from the papyri that we have. Almost no one really believes this. But to hear the critics tell it this is the official position of the church. It’s not. Nor do most members of the church subscribe to this so far as I can tell. So, it’s a strawman. The second one is that Joseph Smith translated the Book of Abraham from papyri that we do not currently have and this is the position that most accords with the historical evidence. And the third one is that Joseph Smith received the Book of Abraham strictly by revelation and it did not come from the papyri at all. This position seems to be popular among Latter-day Saints but seems to have no historical evidence to support it.
(Click here for full article)


An example of what I am talking about is the recent discovery of the papyrus scrolls from which Joseph Smith was presumed to have translated the book of Abraham in the Pearl of Great Price. Modern scholars, looking at the scrolls, found nothing they considered to be similar to that book. I remarked at the time that such a finding didn't bother me in the least. God doesn't need a crib sheet in the form of a papyrus scroll to reveal Abraham's thoughts and words to Joseph Smith, with any degree of precision He considers necessary for His purposes. If the only function of the scrolls was to awaken the Prophet to the idea of receiving such inspiration, they would have fulfilled their purpose.
—Henry Eyring, Reflections of a Scientist, p. 46
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Joseph Smith had in his possession three or four long scrolls, plus a hypocephalus (Facsimile 2). Of these original materials, only a handful of fragments were recovered at the Metropolitan Museum. The majority of the papyri remains lost, and has likely been destroyed. Critics who claim that we have all, or a majority, of the papyri possessed by Joseph Smith are simply mistaken.

The Egyptian characters on the recovered documents are a portion of the "Book of Breathings," an Egyptian religious text buried with mummies that instructed the dead on how to successfully reach the afterlife. This particular Book of Breathings was written for a deceased man named Hor, so it it usually called the Hor Book of Breathings.

Other than the vignette represented in Facsimile 1, the material on the papyri received by the Church, at least from a standard Egyptological point of view, does not include the actual text of the Book of Abraham. This was discussed in the Church publication, the New Era in January 1968.

The following articles explore more detail regarding various aspects of the Book of Abraham.


The Joseph Smith Papyri

Joseph Smith had in his possession three or four long scrolls, plus a hypocephalus (Facsimile 2). Of these original materials, only a handful of fragments were recovered at the Metropolitan Museum. The majority of the papyri remains lost, and has likely been destroyed. (Click here for full article)

  • Source quotes
    Brief Summary: A collection of source quotes related to the Joseph Smith Papyri (Click here for full article)
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  • Identity and nature of the papyrus in the Church's possession
    Brief Summary: In July 1835, Joseph Smith purchased a portion of a collection of papyri and mummies that had been discovered in Egypt and brought to the United States. Believing that one of the papyrus rolls contained, "the writings of Abraham while he was in Egypt," and "purportedly written by his own hand, upon papyrus,"[1] Joseph commenced a translation. The Book of Abraham was the result of his work. 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. (Click here for full article)
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Cover of the January 1968 issue of the Improvement Era, the Church's official magazine of the time. Note the color photograph of the recovered Facsimile 1.
  • When did the Church disclose that the Joseph Smith Papyri were an Egyptian funerary text?
    Brief Summary: Critics often assert that the Church did not identify the Joseph Smith Papyri as an Egyptian funerary text until after Egyptologists examined them. They also claim that the Church is hiding or "covering up" the papyri's actual contents. Both assertions are incorrect. In fact, the Church ran a multi-part series with color pictures of the papyri in the Improvement Era (the predecessor to the Ensign) less than two months after they were received from the Metropolitan Museum.[2] The series repeatedly affirmed that the recovered papyri contained Egyptian funerary materials and not the text of Book of Abraham. Although the article erroneously identified the papyrus as the Egyptian "Book of the Dead," it was later correctly identified as a "Book of Breathings." (Click here for full article)
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  • Dating of the Joseph Smith Papyri
    Brief Summary: Joseph said that "one of the rolls contained the writings of Abraham,"[3] and his scribes quoted him as saying the scroll was "written by his [Abraham's] own hand, upon papyrus."[4] 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. The phrase "by his own hand" can simply mean that Abraham is the author of the book. Similarly, we could hold a modern printed Bible in our hands, point to 1 Corinthians, and say, "This was written by the Apostle Paul." Joseph was translating the writings of Abraham, so it is quite possible that he believed that the actual scroll in his possession was written by Abraham himself. There is no evidence, however, that this belief was based on revelation. (Click here for full article)
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We do not claim to know why the text of the Book of Abraham (or the missing Book of Joseph) is not in evidence on the fragments of papyrus that were recovered. Critics, of course, simply assume this to be conclusive evidence that Joseph was a fraud. From a believer's perspective, however, there are several possible theories to account for this: 1) The text was revealed much in the same manner as that of the Book of Mormon, without the need for the actual papyri, 2) The text was present on portions of the papyri that are missing, and 3) The Book of Abraham manuscript was attached to the Book of Breathings manuscript and was lost. 4) Perhaps there was a way of understanding the Egyptian ideograms anciently that is unknown to Egyptology in our day, yet to be discovered, deciphered or acknowledged, that could yield an interpretation of a text that is different than the standard Egyptological reading. (Click here for full article)

  • The "Revealed Text" theory
    Brief Summary: This theory assumes that the Book of Abraham was not on the papyri; he received the text by revelation, with the papyri acting as a catalyst. This is a possibility because Joseph used the word "translation" to mean several things, including the process of receiving pure revelation. (Joseph Smith's revelations call his revision of the Bible a "translation" (D&C 73:4; 76:15; 90:13; 94:10; 124:89), even though he didn't use any Hebrew of Greek manuscripts. Also, DC 7: is a revealed translation of a lost record written by the Apostle John.) (Click here for full article)
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  • The "Missing Papyrus" theory
    Brief Summary: This theory assumes that the Book of Abraham was on the papyri in Joseph Smith's possession, but the portion recovered from the Metropolitan Museum doesn't include it. This is a possibility because the recovered portion is less than 13% of the total material held by Joseph.[5] Eyewitnesses also reported that the length of the papyri in Joseph's possession was much more extensive than the fragments now held by the Church.[6] (Click here for full article)
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  • The "Jewish Redaction" theory
    Brief Summary: This theory assumes that the Book of Abraham was on a scroll which is no longer extant. 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. (Click here for full article)
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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. Critics charge that the KEP represent Joseph's attempt to translate the hieroglyphics from those portions that are still extant, noting that Egyptologists tell us that the alleged "translations" do not accurately reflect the meanings of the hieroglyphics. In some cases, several paragraphs of the English translation of the Book of Abraham are associated with Egyptian characters from the Joseph Smith papyri. In some instances, one Egyptian character seems to yield several sentences of English text. From what may be surmised from the "Kirtland Egyptian Papers" the surviving Egyptian papyri are claimed by critics to be the source for the Book of Abraham. Critics point out that Egyptologists 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. (Click here for full article)

  • Background and provenance of the Kirtland Egyptian Papers
    Brief Summary: The Kirtland Egyptian Papers (KEP) are a collection of documents written by various individuals, mostly dating to the Kirtland period of Church history (early- to mid-1830s), constituting some sort of study documents relating to the Joseph Smith Egyptian Papyri. (Click here for full article)
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  • Historical LDS approaches to the KEP
    Brief Summary: It is claimed that 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). These two evidences are used by critics in an attempt to prove that the existing fragments of the Scroll of Hor is the source of the Book of Abraham and that therefore Joseph was not a prophet. (Click here for full article)
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  • What is the purpose of the KEP?
    Brief Summary: For many years, the KEP were not well studied. A variety of possible explanations have been offered by LDS researchers over the years. One of the more recent approaches postulates that the KEP represent an attempt by Joseph and his associates to create a way to encode revelations and other sensitive data in a form approximating "pure language." Research into this theory is ongoing. (Click here for full article)
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Photograph of Facsimile 1 from the recovered Joseph Smith Papyri

In the Book of Abraham, Joseph included three facsimiles of illustrations from the papyri, along with commentary about what the images and their individual parts represented. Some of Joseph's interpretations are similar to those of trained Egyptologists, but most are not. A number of criticisms relate to the three facsimiles associated with the Book of Abraham.It is noted that Joseph Smith's translation of the facsimiles does not agree with that provided by Egyptologists, and that some missing portions of the facsimiles were incorrectly restored before they were published. (Click here for full article)

  • Facsimile 1
    Brief Summary: It is claimed that facsimile 1 is simply a typical funerary scene and there are many other papyri showing the same basic scene, and that the missing portions of the drawing were incorrectly restored. It is also claimed that Abraham has never been associated with the lion couch vignette such as that portrayed in Facsimile #1 of the Book of Abraham. (Click here for full article)
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  • "By His Own Hand upon Papyrus": The Charles Larson "restoration" of Facsimile 1
    Brief Summary: The book " his own hand upon papyrus" presents a "restoration" of Facsimile 1 (p. 65), which purports to be "based upon the modern study of Egyptology, and similar scenes in numerous existing papyri." However, the recent availability of high-definition images of the papyri on the Church History website now provides the opportunity to compare the Larson restoration with the original. There are a number of discrepancies which indicate that the restoration contains a number of significant inaccuracies. We examine those inaccuracies in this sub-article. (Click here for full article)
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  • Facsimile 2
    Brief Summary: The illustration represented by Facsimile 2 is a hypocephalus, a disc made of linen, papyrus, or bronze, covered with inscriptions and images which relate to one of the last spells in the Book of the Dead. Joseph Smith's notes to Facsimile 2 identify it as representing God sitting in the heavens among the stars and others of his creations. (Click here for full article)
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  • Facsimile 3
    Brief Summary: The following are common criticisms associated with Facsimile 3: 1) The scene depicted is a known Egyptian vignette which some Egyptologists claim has nothing to do with Abraham, 2) Joseph indicated that specific characters in the facsimile confirmed the identities that he assigned to specific figures, 3) Joseph identified two obviously female figures as "King Pharaoh" and "Prince of Pharaoh." (Click here for full article)
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  • Restoration of the missing portions of the facsimiles
    Brief Summary: Part of the drawings (vignettes) on the papyri have been destroyed. Before the facsimiles were published, the missing sections were filled in. While it appears that Joseph or someone else "restored" these missing parts, non-LDS Egyptologists do not recognize these restorations as accurate. Critics charge that the sections that were filled in are incorrect, and that this proves that Joseph Smith was not a prophet. (Click here for full article)
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  1. [note] 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 BYU Studies link
  2. [note] John Gee, "Some Puzzles from the Joseph Smith Papyri," 2007 FAIR Apologetics Conference (Sandy, Utah). (Link forthcoming.)
  3. [note] The 11-part series, written by Dr. Hugh Nibley and entitled "A New Look at the Pearl of Great Price", began in the January 1968 Improvement Era and ran in every issue until May 1970 (with the exception of December 1969 and February 1970). Nibley's series has been available as a FARMS reprint (N-NEP) since 1990, and several chapters became part of Nibley's book Abraham In Egypt.
  4. [note] 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. BYU Studies link
  5. [note] Michael H. Marquardt, "A Book Note — Hugh Nibley's Abraham in Egypt" (2000).
  6. [note] John Gee, A Guide to the Joseph Smith Papyri, 23.
  7. [note]  "In 1906, while visiting Nauvoo, President Joseph F. Smith related to Preston Nibley his experience as a child of seeing his Uncle Joseph in the front rooms of the Mansion House working on the Egyptian manuscripts. According to President Smith, one of the rolls of papyri "when unrolled on the floor extended through two rooms of the Mansion House." This would have been sometime between 1843 when the Mansion House was completed and the prophet's death in June 1844, one or two years after other parts of the papyri had been cut up and placed under glass. - See Hugh Nibley, "Phase I," Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 3 no. 2 (Summer 1968), 101. See also Hugh Nibley, "New Look at the Pearl of Great Price," Improvement Era 71 (March 1968), 17–18. and Hugh Nibley, "Judging and Prejudging the Book of Abraham," Nibley archive, 1979, 6-7; reprinted as an appendix in Robert L. and Rosemary Brown, They Lie in Wait to Deceive, vol. 1, ed. Barbara Ellsworth, rev. ed. (Mesa, AZ: Brownsworth, 1982), 236—245.
  8. [note] 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
  9. [note] Hugh W. Nibley, "Phase One," Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 3 no. 2 (Summer 1968), 101. off-site
  10. [note] Gee, A Guide to the Joseph Smith Papyri, 12–13.
  11. [note] 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.

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