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The LDS Restorationist movement,
including the Mormon churches

The Book of Abraham

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Quotation:

bullet"A translation of some ancient records, that have fallen into our hands from the catacombs of Egypt. The writings of Abraham while he was in Egypt, called the Book of Abraham, written by his own hand upon papyrus." Joseph Smith, from the title page of the Book of Abraham.

bullet"...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, etc. -- a more full account of which will appear in its place, as I proceed to examine or unfold them. Truly we can say, the Lord is beginning to reveal the abundance of peace and truth." Joseph Smith.

bullet"[The Book of Abraham]...contains priceless information about the gospel, pre-existence, the nature of Deity, the creation, and priesthood -- information which is not otherwise available in any other revelation now extant." Mormon Apostle Bruce R. McConkie. 1

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History of the Book of Abraham:

In 1835, Joseph Smith, founder of the original Mormon church -- the Church of Christ -- purchased several Egyptian papyrus scrolls and fragments from the owner of a traveling road show which exhibited Egyptian mummies and documents. After translating them, he stated that they were a copy of a book by the biblical patriarch Abraham. This "Book of Abraham" was first published in 1842, and was recognized by the Utah branch of the Mormon church as scripture in 1880. It became part of "The Pearl of Great Price" one of their four divinely inspired and authoritative source texts -- the "Standard Works." The work, including pictures adapted from the papyri, totaled about 15 pages. It appears that the translation was never completed, as it ends suddenly at the beginning of the Garden of Eden story. 1

Smith "...claimed that he received divine inspiration, not in writing a new book of scripture, but instead in having discovered and translated an existing ancient work." 2 He would have had to have been divinely inspired, because only a few academics could read some ancient Egyptian hieroglyphic text at that time. Translation only became possible following the discovery of the Rosetta Stone in 1799-JUL, in Rosetta, Egypt (near Alexandria). The stone included a decree that was translated into three languages: Ancient Greek, Egyptian hieroglyphics, and Demotic (a later  Egyptian script). The Greek writings could be translated by Egyptologists. Over time, this led to the deciphering of the other two. By 1822, Jean François Champollion (1790-1832), the "Father of the Decipherment of Hieroglyphs," 3  was able to identify the names of a few pharaohs on some monuments. 4 The ability to translate hieroglyphics symbol-by-symbol came later -- long after Smith claimed that he translated the Book of Abraham.

M. Theodule Deveria, a French Egyptologist inspected the copies of the original images on the papyri. He concluded that they were typical Egyptian funerary documents. He was able to decipher the name of the priest who authored the work, and of some Egyptian gods. He "dismissed Joseph's explanations as rambling nonsense. His comments first appeared in French in a two-volume work by Jules Remy entitled Voyage au Pays des Mormons (Paris, 1860)." 1

In 1912, the Rt. Reverend Franklin S. Spalding, Episcopal Bishop of Utah, sent copies of the three facsimiles from the Book to world-class Egyptologists and Semitists. Eight responded with uniformly negative appraisals:

bulletthe Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City: "Joseph Smith's interpretation of these cuts is a farrago of nonsense from beginning to end...five minutes study in an Egyptian gallery of any museum should be enough to convince any educated man of the clumsiness of the imposture."

bullet"...difficult to deal seriously with Smith's impudent fraud."

bullet"Smith has turned the Goddess into a king and Osiris into Abraham."

bullet"...very clearly demonstrates that he (Joseph Smith) was totally unacquainted with the significance of these documents and absolutely ignorant of the simplest facts of Egyptian Writing and civilization."

bullet"...the attempts to guess a meaning are too absurd to be noticed. It may be safely said that there is not one single word that is true in these explanations."

Author Charles Larson comments:

"Church spokesmen vehemently charged the scholars with using erroneous criteria. Their methods were faulty, their motives questionable. In 1913, Mormon writer John Henry Evans pointed out in an article in the Church-sanctioned Improvement Era, that less than one-seventh of the whole Book of Abraham was represented by the facsimile portion, and even that only as an accompaniment to the text." 1

One of Joseph Smith's wives, Emma Smith, sold the material to a man who later sold it to the Chicago Museum. It was believed to have been destroyed in the Great Chicago fire of 1871. However, in early 1966, Dr. Aziz S. Atiya, a professor of Arabic Studies from the University of Utah was visiting the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. He stumbled across 11 papyrus fragments and a letter from Emma Smith certifying that they belonged to Joseph Smith. The papyri had been glued to a paper backing which included a map of the Kirtland, OH area. They were returned to the LDS church the following year. 5

The church hired an author, allegedly a J.E. Homans, who went by the pen-name of Robert C Webb, PhD. The degree in Egyptology was apparently imaginary. He wrote a book strongly supporting the church's position.

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A movie attempting dialog:

A movie about the papyri, The Lost Book of Abraham premiered in Orem, Utah, at the Utah Valley State College on 2002-AUG-8. 2 In the film, contrasting opinions about the documents are given:

bulletRobert Ritner, an associate professor of Egyptology at the University of Chicago was commissioned to translate the surviving parts of the scroll. He stated that Smith's translation conflicts with the beliefs of professional linguists. Ritner says in the movie that the book is an extended prayer on behalf of an ancient Egyptian priest which, he hoped, would assure that the he would be able to function in the afterlife as he had done while on earth. Ritner agrees with other Egyptian historians that the papyri are unrelated to the life of Abraham.
bulletJohn Gee, a Mormon Egyptologist, is quoted as saying that the recovered fragments are "not the portion of the papyri that contained the text of the Book of Abraham."

The writer and producer of the film, Luke Wilson, commented: "We have tried to bring a level of sensitivity to this kind of work, I think, with some success. We are trying to have a constructive dialogue." Unfortunately, LDS officials and scholars refused to be interviewed for the film.

Jan Shipps, a non-Mormon student of the LDS church said:

"This story has been around since 1967 and I assumed it would undercut Mormon beliefs. But instead of being like a stone shattering a pane of glass, it was more like a stone being tossed into a pool of water and dropping to the bottom."

David P. Wright of Brandeis University commented:

"This documentary must be seen by all those who are interested in the origins of the Book of Abraham. In an artful and educational manner, it sets forth in clarity the basic evidence that establishes Joseph Smith – not the biblical Abraham – as the author." 6,7

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A book by Charles Larson:

Charles Larson is an ex-Mormon who has converted to Evangelical Christianity. His book "By His Own Hand Upon Papyrus: A new look at the Joseph Smith Papyri" attempts to show that the Book of Abraham is a fraud. Appended to the book are two chapters intended to convert Mormons to Evangelical Protestantism.

Some of the points included in Larson's book are:

bulletThe church taught that the Book of Abraham was written by the patriarch Abraham. Later, Moses allegedly used the book as a reference when writing the Genesis. However, a great deal of material from the Book of Abraham was not included in Genesis.

bulletAbraham allegedly wrote in the book that he held the Priesthood of God, centuries before the priesthood was instituted by Moses.

bulletIn the book, God instructed Abraham to lie to the Egyptians by saying that his wife, Sarai, was his sister. This evidence that God used deception was useful, because at the time that Smith was translating the papyri, there was a dispute in the church whether it was acceptable to lie to the outside world, denying that polygyny was being practiced among the Mormons.

bulletThe Book of Abraham taught that there were many Gods. This verified Smith's teachings that God was one of many deities.

bulletThe Book contained some racist material. "It described Pharoh and the Egyptians as descendents of Ham and Canaan (the progenitors of the Negro race)." Being "under the curse of Canaan" this disqualified them from the priesthood. This passage neatly dovetailed with Smith's racist views about African-Americans which were only abandoned by the Church in 1978.

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References:

  1. Charles Larson, "By His Own Hand Upon Papyrus: A New Look at the Joseph Smith Papyri", Institute for Religious Research / Mormons in Transition, (1992). Members of the LDS church can order one free by paying nominal shipping and handling; non members can order it safely from Amazon.com online book store. The text of the book can be downloaded for free in eight parts: http://www.irr.org/
  2. "The Lost Book of Abraham: Investigating a remarkable Mormon claim -- Synopsis," at:  http://www.bookofabraham.info/
  3. Max Sewell, "The Discovery of the Rosetta Stone," NapoleonSeries, at: http://www.napoleonseries.org/
  4. "The discovery of the Rosetta Stone," The British Museum, at: http://www.thebritishmuseum.ac.uk/
  5. Peggy Stack, "Film Challenges LDS Translation," Salt Lake Tribune, 2002-AUG-8, at: http://www.sltrib.com/
  6. "The Lost Book of Abraham: Investigating a remarkable Mormon claim," at: http://www.bookofabraham.info/  Read reviews or order it in VHS format safely from the Amazon.com online store.
  7. Ibid, at: http://www.bookofabraham.info/

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 Home > Christianity > Christian faith groups > LDS Restorationism > here

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Copyright 1999 to 2011 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 1999-NOV-28.
Latest update: 2011-MAR-08
Author: B.A. Robinson

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