Updated: Aug 26, 2020
On New Year’s Eve in 1974, instead of going to a church dance, I agreed to babysit for a couple at church. After getting their children to bed, I washed all their dishes. There were still hours to go. I thought about my friends and how much fun they must be having. I was bored.
That year, in early-morning seminary, we had been studying church history. I was fascinated by the story of Egyptian mummies and papyri on exhibit in Ohio by Michael Chandler and them subsequently being purchased by friends of Joseph Smith in July of 1835. As I thought about how to spend the last few hours of the year, I resolved to read the “Book of Abraham”. It had been canonized as scripture in 1880. What made the book so unique and special was listed in its introduction: “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.”
I took the Pearl of Great Price off the shelf and began to read and ponder. At the beginning of the book was a diagram. (Facsimile 1) No other scriptures had ancient pictures in them. It was fascinating. I carefully studied the meaning of each part that was identified in the illustration. I especially remember the idolatrous God of Elkenah. He was black with a weird white head. At the time, I thought it funny because I knew a girl named Elke (She is now my wife).
The first chapter describes how Abraham almost was sacrificed by the God or priest of Elkenah but was saved by the Lord and told to leave and go to a strange land. It also taught me about the daughter of Ham and son of Egyptus who were said to have settled Egypt. It told me about a curse “as pertaining to the Priesthood” (Abr 1:26-27). I immediately knew what race or lineage they were talking about because I had been taught that Negroes or blacks were a cursed race.
In chapter two, God again appears to Abraham and tells him to leave and go to Caanan, with his wife, who was also his cousin. It said that through Abraham’s literal seed, all nations would be blessed. As he was traveling, he built a couple of altars. Then there was a famine, so he continued to Egypt. The Lord told Abraham to ask his beautiful wife to say to the Egyptians that she was his sister. It seemed strange to me that Abraham’s wife, Sarai, was basically told to lie.
Chapter three blew my mind! Abraham starts describing the earth, moon, sun and stars, including one great one called Kolob. One day on Kolob was a thousand years on Earth. Also, God lives very close to Kolob. I loved astronomy and my father worked on NASA projects. I had looked at the stars before through some very high-power telescopes and seen some of the detail in the Milky Way. As I read, I tried to picture these planets or stars, I wondered which one was Kolob. I thought it strange at the time that the moon, or lesser light, was said to be above the Earth, or meaning was more glorious (Abr 3:5,17). I had seen the moon in detailed pictures from the Ranger space craft and I knew the moon revolved around the Earth and didn’t generate its own light, but merely reflected the light of the sun.
As I turned the page, I was presented with another diagram. (Facsimile 2). This one was round and described the astronomy and contained many smaller vignettes. I didn’t know it at the time, but to create the printed images, they had to be delicately carved into a piece of wood or lead, which was done by Elder Ruben Hedlock. That makes them even more amazing to me now.
Chapter 3 finishes with a story of our pre-existence as intelligences, then as spirits, with God. There is a council in heaven. We are to be sent to Earth to be tested. Then two people respond to the request of God and offer to be sent to Earth. The first was chosen and the second got angry. (I knew it referred to Jehovah and Lucifer, but nothing in these verses clearly indicated that).
Chapter 4 and 5 rehearsed the Creation narrative, with a few changes from the two versions in the familiar Genesis story. Most notably was the introduction of multiple Gods.
There was one more carving. (Facsimile 3). This one depicted Abraham sitting on the throne of King Pharaoh. There is a black slave, Olimlah, that belonged to the Prince.
That evening was a wonderful experience for me as I contemplated the deep mysteries of God.
Over the years, I realized that some of the most unique and identifying doctrines are contained in these short 5 chapters, chiefly the doctrine of pre-existence with God and the promise of Eternal Glory completely requisite on our “Keeping our Second Estate”. Also, the reason for the doctrine of the Priesthood curse on the Negro was clearly identified in chapter one, even though it has since been disavowed by the current church. When I later went to the temple, I would hear the creation narrative portrayed that closely followed the story in chapters four and five.
Based on the simple way it was presented as literal, I accepted it as truth. I have studied it many times since.
Unlike other modern-day scriptures produced by Joseph Smith, some of the source documents were still in existence, though I was taught that only some fragments of the depictions survived the great Chicago fire.
When I was nine years old, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York sold four distinct papyri back to the church who, after a brief public review, put it away in their vault. Why had this amazing document not been more readily available? After all, this would prove the ability of Joseph Smith as a translator. Mostly, it had been kept a secret.
In my seminary textbook I had read, “No prophet ever gave to the world a stronger challenge of his divine calling than did Joseph Smith in his translation of the Book of Abraham.”(1)
In 2012, I was preparing a Sunday School lesson on the classic story of the Sacrifice of Isaac by Abraham. Being that we are now in the digital age, I went on the church website to find a video I had used before when I taught seminary. I could not find it, so I searched on Google for ‘Abraham Sacrifice’. A curious video appeared in the search that informed that the papyri had not only been found but had also been translated. I was excited and my mind went back to this seminal experience when I was 16.
As I watched the video, I became very uncomfortable. While the papyri had indeed been found, the Egyptian translation did not match what was in my scriptures. I was confused. How could this be? I searched and searched for answers and discovered some LDS apologists that proposed explanations in a way that it was enough for me to feel okay with it. I figured they are experts and so I looked no further.
On July 8 of 2014, on the church’s official web site, a Gospel Topics Essay(2) about Book of Abraham Translation was presented. It proposes several explanations but admits “None of the characters on the papyrus fragments mentioned Abraham’s name or any of the events recorded in the book of Abraham. Mormon and non-Mormon Egyptologists agree that the characters on the fragments do not match the translation given in the book of Abraham”.
The church had admitted the possibility of the book not being what it claimed. Yet, most members, including me, were unaware that the Essay existed. When Elder Ballard spoke to CES and Seminary teachers in February of 2016, he encouraged us to “know the Essays like the back of your hand.” I had recently learned of them and so I took him up on that challenge.
The arguments(3) for and against(6) accepting the book as translated scripture are complicated and varied. I would venture to say that most rank and file members don’t do the research to understand them. The resources listed below may be helpful.
Why should it matter to an active, believing Latter-day Saint or to any other Christian?
I was taught that the truth matters, and honesty and integrity are very important, especially in the context of a religious system one devotes his or her life to.
I have spent hundreds of hours of research and study to try to understand this topic and others. I am still an amateur. Yet, as I have studied the Book of Abraham, I have learned some things. I learned that the first facsimile was really from a standard funerary text. The idolatrous God of Elkenah is actually Anubis and should have a jackal head. The original papyrus was damaged, so Joseph Smith possibly used the head of the person on the Lion couch, Abraham. Only, it’s not Abraham, it is Osiris. He is not being sacrificed; he is being anointed. The Coptic jars are not other idolatrous Gods, but, representing the four sons of Horus, are containers for some of the deceased’s organs.
On the second facsimile, for the parts that were missing, they took pictures from some of the other scrolls that belonged to other mummies. The actual document is a hypoocephalus. This disk was placed under the head of the mummy. Per Joseph Smith, Fig. 7. “Represents God sitting upon his throne, revealing through the heavens the grand Key-words of the Priesthood; as, also, the sign of the Holy Ghost unto Abraham, in the form of a dove.” It is actually the fertility God Min and he has an erect penis through which he populates the world. In 1902, the church removed the image of the penis in the scriptures and restored it in 1981.
The final image in facsimile 3 in not of Abraham, but of Osiris as he comes back to life. The black slave is not a slave at all. It is Anubis, the god of mummification and the afterlife. Ruben Hedlock had originally etched this correctly in the lead plate. Then the jackal snout and one of the ears was carved out. Part of the other ear still remains and looks like a unicorn on top of the head.
Joseph Smith and the scribes also kept book as they were working on the Egyptian translation. William Parrish described how they would write the character and then the translation given by Joseph Smith. They were seriously studying Egyptian. Some of those documents have been made available now through the Joseph Smith Papers project. I applaud the church for their new approach to transparency.
This information was all new to me, but the church and other intellectual groups, like Sunstone and Dialogue, has known most of this since 1967 or earlier. As early as 1856, some were sounding the alarm that this was not a correct translation. As of the date of this article, the church continues to list the facsimiles on the website with the incorrect interpretations, without even a footnote or linking it to their own Essay. Is that honest?
All religions have foundational narratives and myths that become scripture, the Book of Abraham is no exception. It is accepted as a translated scripture by most members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. For me, it is an absolute fact that the Book of Abraham is not what it has been presented as for over 180 years, a “Translation”. This calls into question either or both the translation ability and/or the truthfulness of Joseph Smith, who proclaimed himself, by his own revelation on April 6, 1830, as a “Seer and Translator”. That leaves one to try to accept the newly proffered Catalyst theory, that it was a revealed or inspired (not translated) text. If it was, then the fact that Joseph Smith claimed otherwise means he claimed something which is not true, and the church continues to perpetuate that claim to this day.
Through research, I found the foremost scholar in this period of Egyptology, Dr. Robert Ritner from the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago. While he taught at Yale, he trained the church’s leading Egyptian apologist, Dr. John Gee. Dr. Ritner recently conducted a 13-hour interview(4), along with detailed slides, explaining and giving insight to almost all of the apologetic claims. I have also read his rebuttal to the claims made by Mormon apologists(5) by way of the Gospel Topics essay in 2014. By carefully reading both the church’s Essay, including all the footnotes, and Professor Ritner’s responses, one can come to their own conclusion, as I have, as to the veracity of the translation of the Book of Abraham, the “Egyptian Scripture”.
1. Berrett, William Edwin , The Restored Church page 107, Deseret Press
3. FairMormon - https://www.fairmormon.org/answers/Book_of_Abraham
Contains many of the arguments used to support the Essay on the church website. FairMormon is the apologetic arm of the church.
4. Interview with Dr. Ritner - https://www.mormonstories.org/podcast/robert-ritner/ Contains many side by side comparisons of the documents in the church archives and what is available in academia.
5. Interview with Dr. Brian Hauglid - https://mormondiscussionpodcast.org/2020/07/radio-free-mormon-184-the-brian-hauglid-interview/ As a BYU professor (now retired), he was asked to write the initial Essay on lds.org site.
6. Interview with Dan Vogel - https://gospeltangents.com/2019/07/critiquing-abraham-apologetics/ Explains how apologist arguments are framed without peer review and, at times, taken out of context.