To understand the Book of Abraham and feel settled on the topic you will need to do your homework. Lots and lots and lots of homework.
When you’ve watched all these videos below (and some more than once) you may begin to feel more comfortable about this topic — one the critics employ most frequently. Enjoy!
*** Each scholar below has a slightly different view on the data. Some and perhaps even much disagreement isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
The Joseph Smith Papers has produced a new volume on the Book of Abraham. These videos introduce the history and associated artifacts.
Link to the Joseph Smith Papers: The Book of Abraham and other Egyptian Materials.
This video provides a quick introduction to this topic:
This video provides a quick introduction to many of the associated artifacts:
Wonderful interview with Robin Jensen. You can play these podcasts at 1.25, 1.5, or 2x speed. Quick to listen:
Notes from the above podcast:
- Oliver Cowdery, WW Phelps, and others start translation in 1835
- Warren Parrish, who apostatized in 1837 (after bank crisis), said he wrote down the Book of Abraham in 1835 from Joseph Smith
- nobody knows the actual mechanics
- Wilford Woodruff and Orson Pratt reported Joseph used the Urim and Thummin; evidence suggests that Woodruff provides good evidence: Joseph used the interpreters for at least part of the time
- Joseph has a history of using a spectrum of ways to translate: study, inspiration, use of the Bible to inspire, use of seer stones, etc
- history and scholarship can’t prove; ultimately, this is a matter of faith and study
- the BoA gives us a richer documentary record for Joseph’s translation methods vs. the Book of Mormon, JST, etc.
- can invalid assumptions parents use for getting child well (analogous to Joseph’s possible use of Hieratic characters in margin) combined with faith still allow a child to be healed?
- Joseph may or may not have thought the characters represented what he translated into the Book of Abraham; we’ll never know; but incorrect ideas may still have allowed Joseph to receive information creating the Book of Abraham
- faulty assumptions can still allow revelation
- seer stones are weird for us today, but not for Joseph; Joseph communed with God through a rock; Joseph had many assumptions from his time and not all were correct
- Joseph likely thought a hieroglyph represented multiple words; God didn’t tell him the correct way to understand Egyptian, but still provided the revelation
- it’s complicated to understand how the Grammar and Alphabet relates to the Book of Abraham
- it’s hard to know what comes first — the Kirtland Language Project or the BoA text
- how much of Joseph’s material was inspired, his opinion, and a blend?
- Joseph wasn’t a fax machine for God
- members need to wrestle with these complexities
- 2 of the 3 Book of Abraham manuscript copies were made simultaneously
- revelation for the BoA occurred in 1835 and finished in 1842
Brett McDonald at LDS Truth Claims provides his insights. His conclusions aren’t identical to Jensen’s above. The Abraham section begins near the 17:00-minute mark in video #20.
- Michael Chandler sold 4 mummies, 5 scrolls, and fragments to Joseph Smith in 1835.
- Joseph begins translation in July 1835 and stops in November of that year (after hiring a Hebrew teacher). It’s unclear how much translation is completed in 1835. The translation resumes in 1842.
Jeff Linsday provides strong insights into the Book of Abraham generally and into it’s more controversial areas. If you don’t know, Lindsay has run this Mormanity blog (links below) for decades. He’s been an awesome research for searching Latter-day Saints for a long time!
The Smoking Gun for Joseph’s Translation of the Book of Abraham, or Copied Manuscripts from an Existing Translation?
At the 24:30 mark in video #20, Brett shows that museum catalogs showed these items from the Joseph Smith collection.
- at least 2 mummies
- 2 long papyri rolls (1 described as the “long roll”, the other as short)
- we don’t know where the other 2 mummies went
The above were sold by Emma to Abel Combs who later sold these same items to the Woods Museum in St. Louis. The St. Louis Museum later transferred the artifacts to the museum in Chicago. The Chicago Museum catalogs show these items didn’t survive the Great Chicago Fire of 1871.
A small amount of the Joseph Smith collection — the Egyptian material that wasn’t sold to Abel Combs — was given to Emma’s housekeeper who subsequently sold the material to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. This was in the possession of the NY museum:
- original source of Facsimile 1 (we don’t have 2 or 3)
- about 8 feet of papyri (original estimates are that the collection was around 40 feet)
- eyewitness accounts: most say nothing, but those who do discuss where the Book of Abraham is located with Joseph’s collection report the Book of Abraham is on the long roll; this is the report long after we know the papyrus with facsimile 1 is already mounted under glass
- the fragments are what we have in the Church’s possession; eyewitnesses claimed the Book of Abraham was on a scroll, not on the fragments (some of which were mounted on glass)
Is the assumption correct that Joseph was translating Hieratic characters that were immediately adjacent to Facsimile 1?
- papyri from 200 BC: ~50% of the time the text surrounding a facsimile relates to the adjacent facsimile
- Abraham 1:12: “I refer you to the representation at the commencement of this record.”
- the BoA text would have only referenced a reader to the beginning only if the Hieratic characters used were somewhat distant from the facsimile
- the KEP employs characters that are immediately adjacent to facsimile 1
Critics — as shown in figure below — show the Hieratic text found to be associated with the Book of Abraham text. Such close proximity shouldn’t be expected if the writer speaks of the “commencement of this record.” One would expect the commencement to be anywhere besides immediately adjacent.
In other words, we expect the source from the Book of Abraham to be somewhere distant from the Facsimile 1. Far enough to warrant the description used in verse 12.
Brett’s conclusion: Joseph wasn’t translating the characters adjacent to Facsimile 1.
Is the assumption that Joseph was translating actual papyrus correct?
- no way to know
- Joseph translated both the Book of Mormon and the Book of Enoch a “translation”
- the Book of Mormon was a functional translation from a plate text
- the Book of Enoch was from the time Joseph was creating the JST of the Old Testament
- the BoA could have been a functional or conceptual translation
Brett discussed the many, many things Joseph got right in the Book of Abraham that he couldn’t have possibly known in the 1830s and 1840s:
- existence of a record written by Abraham (nothing in the Bible)
- Abraham’s obvious literacy and possession of ancient texts
- Abraham’s desire to possess “great knowledge”
- the rebellion of his fathers, who had once possessed the priesthood but had now turned to idol worship, according to Egyptian practices
- the practice of human sacrifice, including sacrifice of children, as part of the practice of local idolaters in Chaldea
- local priests seizing Abraham in an attempt to sacrifice him
- his father, Terah’s, role in this attempt
- miraculous delivery from death by an angel
- repentance of Terah and eventual return to idolatry after famine abated
- Abraham’s knowledge of stars, planets, and astronomy through revelation
- Abraham teaching Astronomy in Egypt
- revelation to Abraham about the pre-mortal existence of spirits or intelligences and council in heaven
- Abraham honored by kings or on a throne
No naturalistic explanations account for all these correspondences. All good guessing? Possible. Not likely.
Laura Harris Hales interviews Dr. John Gee about the history of Joseph Smith’s papyri. Dr. Gee has studied the papyri and the Book of Abraham for over thirty years, yet admits there are still many mysteries still to be unraveled.
Please keep in mind a few of these thoughts by Hugh Nibley (thanks to Jim Bennett for creating his CES Letter Reply):
“…it is important to emphasize what many Egyptologists are insisting on today as
never before, namely, the folly of giving just one interpretation and one only to any
This is the pit into which Joseph Smith’s critics have always fallen: “This cannot possibly represent ‘A’ because it represents ‘B’!” “The value of an Egyptian presentation,” Eberhard Otto reminds us, “depended on seeing the greatest possible number of meanings in the briefest possible formulation.”3
Heretofore, critics of the Joseph Smith explanations have insisted on the least
possible number of meanings, namely one, to every item, and as a result have not
only disagreed widely among themselves, but also exposed their efforts to drastic
The Egyptians “considered it a particular nicety that symbols should
possess multiple significance,” wrote Henri Frankfort, “that one single interpretation
should not be the only possible one.”
John Gee’s Rome presentation:
Brian Hales created a response to the lengthy criticisms by Jeremy Runnels here: The CES Letter: A Closer Look.
Kevin Barney in Rome, discussing the Book of Abraham:
Non-LDS Egyptologist, Robert Ritner regularly shares his opinion on issues relating to the Book of Abraham. Most non-LDS Egyptologists, in contrast, don’t weigh into this debate.
Jeremy Runnells shared Ritner’s insight, and Jim Bennett notes that Ritner only attacked what Ritner consider low-hanging fruit. Ritner, didn’t give credit where Joseph was correct or in any way respond in a comprehensive way.
Bennett: It’s also interesting that Ritner labels his piece as a response to the Church’s essay, as he essentially only responds to the subjects that he feels he can easily discredit – he only goes after the low-hanging fruit, as it were. The following quotes from the Church’s essay are completely ignored by Robert Ritner:
The book speaks of “the plain of Olishem,” a name not mentioned in the Bible. An
ancient inscription, not discovered and translated until the 20th century, mentions a
town called “Ulisum,” located in northwestern Syria.
Ritner’s response: Silence.
Further, Abraham 3:22–23 is written in a poetic structure more characteristic of
Near Eastern languages than early American writing style.
No response from Ritner.
Facsimile 1 and Abraham 1:17 mention the idolatrous god Elkenah. This deity is not
mentioned in the Bible, yet modern scholars have identified it as being among the
gods worshipped by ancient Mesopotamians.
Ritner doesn’t address this at all.
In the book of Abraham, God teaches Abraham about the sun, the moon, and the
stars. “I show these things unto thee before ye go into Egypt,” the Lord says, “that
ye may declare all these words.” Ancient texts repeatedly refer to Abraham
instructing the Egyptians in knowledge of the heavens. For example, Eupolemus,
who lived under Egyptian rule in the second century B.C.E., wrote that Abraham
taught astronomy and other sciences to the Egyptian priests.
Ritner doesn’t mention this.
A later Egyptian text, discovered in the 20th century, tells how the Pharaoh tried to
sacrifice Abraham, only to be foiled when Abraham was delivered by an angel.
Later, according to this text, Abraham taught members of the Pharaoh’s court
through astronomy. All these details are found in the book of Abraham.
Shouldn’t this be included in a comprehensive response? But Ritner doesn’t bother.
Other details in the book of Abraham are found in ancient traditions located across
the Near East. These include Terah, Abraham’s father, being an idolator; a famine
striking Abraham’s homeland; Abraham’s familiarity with Egyptian idols; and
Abraham’s being younger than 75 years old when he left Haran, as the biblical
account states. Some of these extrabiblical elements were available in apocryphal
books or biblical commentaries in Joseph Smith’s lifetime, but others were confined
to nonbiblical traditions inaccessible or unknown to 19th-century Americans.
They’re accessible to Ritner, but you wouldn’t know that from his response, which fails
to address them.
Look, again, I’m not qualified to argue Egyptological details, and Ritner is. But it ought
to be disturbing, Jeremy, that, like you, he only engages arguments that he thinks he can win. You may not realize that’s not how it works, but as a genuine scholar, Ritner knows better, which makes his decision to only engage part of the essay a telling admission of more uncertainty on his part than he’s willing to publicly concede.
John Tvedtnes shares his insight:
John Gee interviewed by Martin Tanner on Van Hale’s Mormon Miscellaneous KSL radio show:
- Joseph translation
- Ancient astronomy
- Who supplied the text
- Blacks and the Priesthood
- LDS Doctrine
Among other things in this Mormon Miscellaneous podcast (near the 1:28:00 mark), John Gee points out that Facsimile 1 is unique. No other lion couch scene looks quite like this one that ended up in Book of Breathings papyri.
Most other lion couch scenes do not involve a living person. Instead, they involve a sarcophagus.
That is, the facsimile has nothing to do with the surrounding text. And the facsimile — with a crocodile and bird-like object — is unique among lion-couch facsimiles.
Side note: this related vignette — one of a lion couch scene — has the word Abraham written in Greek below the couch.
How do Egyptologists make sense of this scene, Fascimile 1, with all these unique elements? And they can’t use the unrelated surrounding text to interpret. No parallel vignettes and no labels exist. The truth, as Dr. Gee explains is this: Egyptologists disagree and guess.
John further explains that the 19th Century witnesses to the JS Egyptian material reported that the Book of Abraham came from the long scroll. This is not at all the same scroll the fascimiles came from.
Facsimile 2 and 3 were not preserved.
More from John Gee below.
Only the mounted (in glass) fragments were returned to the Church in 1967. N. Eldon Tanner (left) worked with Aziz Atiya (center) to secure the papyri from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.
Joseph Smith had more than mounted-in-glass fragments (returned in 1967) as part of his original collection. After Lucy Mack Smith’s passing in 1856, many items were sold to the Wood Museum in St. Louis. The Great Chicago Fire of 1871 consumed the entire museum, including these items:
- a long roll of manuscript
- another roll
- 2-3 pieces of papyrus
This video reviews average length of papyri and other very interesting puzzles. Please listen:
From LDS Perspective Podcasts:
The following section below will focus on what have been referred to as the Kirtland Egyptian Papers (KEP) and the documents we have today that have the text of the Book of Abraham.
As shown below, hieratic characters were placed on the left and Book of Abraham text on the right. Most LDS scholars believe the text on the right preceeded the characters on the left.
Some of the characters come from the papyrus adjacent to Fascimile 1. However, some of the characters are numerical (see Joseph Smith Papers, Book of Abraham manuscripts’ images) — not related at all to the characters adjacent to Fascimile 1.
“If Joseph had originally written an Egyptian character in the margin and then either
puzzled out or had the translation revealed to him, there would have been no need to
continue to write down the original characters when making third or fourth copies of
the scriptural text.
We can document that Joseph Smith was not in Kirtland when many of the Kirtland Egyptian Papers were created. Both the fact that the hieratic text was apparently overwritten onto the English Book of Abraham verses and evidence of specific scribal practices suggest that the hieratic was a late addition. This indicates that they were written after the text had been completed, not copied beforehand and then translated.”
Brian Hauglid discusses the three extant Book of Abraham manuscripts. Brian discussed the reasons for believing the extant Book of Abraham manuscripts are copies of copies. Not the original manuscripts that likely would have been dictated by Joseph.
Brian points out reasons to think the extant manuscripts weren’t created from dictation (and therefore not the originals) — the way Joseph produce previous scripture: the Book of Mormon and JST. Instead, Brian argues in the videos below that the extant manuscripts were copies of copies and not the original manuscript.
- Presence of punctuation, copied words (more common with copying, not dictating)
- ink differences between the Hieratic character on the left and Book of Abraham text on the right
- multiple scribes were involved and not Oliver Cowdery (at least the extant manuscripts of the Book of Abraham text were not made by Oliver)
Brian Hauglid on the Kirtland Egyptian Papers (KEP). Below is part 1. #2 – 6 are later on YouTube:
A podcast with Dr. Hauglid here, discussing the Book of Abraham manuscripts.
Unlike the Book of Mormon, we don’t have the original and printer’s manuscripts. Only copies of copies. And no manuscripts at all for much of the Book of Abraham. That is, we’re missing part of chapter 3 and all of the last two chapters: 4 and 5.
Further, we know Oliver acted as Joseph’s scribe for the Book of Abraham. And we have no manuscripts — likely would have scribed for the original and printer’s manuscripts — in Oliver’s handwriting.
A case arguing that the recovered texts (in the 1960s) were not what Joseph Smith used for the Book of Abraham: The Joseph Smith Papyrus Was Never the Basis for the Book of Abraham.
This blogger shows the JS papyri and the missing long scroll:
Conflict of Justice asks several fair questions to dispute the most common critical claim relating to the image below:
The most incriminating evidence that the Book of Abraham came from the Book of Breathings fragments can be found in early church documents that line up some hieroglyphs from the recovered fragments with text from the Book of Abraham. In the first column, we see characters from the rediscovered fragments, and in the other column paragraphs from the Book of Abraham.
Is this the smoking gun? Does this prove that these surviving fragments were involved in its translation, and that it’s therefore phony?
- No. If this document was the source of the Book of Abraham, why did they only get to chapter 2 in this comparison? There are several chapters that are unaccounted for. It therefore could not have been used to produce the Book of Abraham
- Each single hieroglyph character matches up to long paragraphs of text. Why would Joseph Smith claim he was translating paragraphs from a single character?
- The hieroglyphs overlap the page’s columns, while the English text does not. This suggests that the English was written first, and that it therefore came from a previous source.
- These hieroglyphs do not appear in the Grammar and Alphabet list, so their definitions were apparently not explored like the facsimiles were. Why not? Both documents were written around the same time, after all.
- Why were there three separate documents with this exact same alignment of hieroglyph vs. text?
- How could someone make up a book of scripture this way? How could a person make up a text by lining up random paragraphs to random glyphs?
- Joseph Smith did not claim to give a “translation” of the Facsimile–just an explanation. It was labeled: “A Fac-simile from the Book of Abraham — Explanation of the above cut.” “Facsimile” means “an exact copy or likeness.” The vignette in the Hor scroll was “an exact copy” from the Book of Abraham. The vignette may appear in this other scroll but what it shows is actually derived from the Book of Abraham.
- Joseph Smith went on two associate two more papyrus fragments–Facsimiles 2 and 3–with Abraham.
- These other two facsimiles certainly do not appear on the Hor scroll. Everyone agrees that Facsimile 2 came from a hypocephalus document and not the Hor Book of Breathings scroll. Yet Joseph Smith titled it “A Fac-simile From The Book Of Abraham,” just like he labeled Facsimile 1. Why the same label if one came from the Book of Abraham scroll and the other did not?
- Why not publish illustrations of the hieroglyphs alongside the text like he did with the three Facsimiles if those handful of hieroglyphs were really the source of the text translation? If the text originated from those hieroglyphs or held some kind of meaningful relationship, why didn’t Joseph Smith do the same as he did with the Facsimiles?
Additional insight about Fascimile 1:
Another contributor to this discussion is Will Schryver. Lots of people don’t agree with his positions, but I think he’s got some merit to his views:
Hauglid and Jensen share their 2018 views:
John Tvedtnes and Richley Crapo wrote this about a possible means of translation of the Book of Abraham: A Study of the Hor Sen-Sen Papyrus.
Jeff Lindsay has lots of information on his blog here.