Book of Abraham - a different perspective

The knowledge of the Egyptian language among Egyptian scholars in the 1830's was in its infancy. Six years prior to acquiring the Egyptian mummies and papyri, Joseph had completed the translation the Book of Mormon which was reportedly inscribed with strange characters called "altered Egyptian." His natural curiosity for understanding and translating strange and ancient languages must have been peaked. This was also to include a period of time in Kirtland when the church hired a Jewish Rabbi to teach the Hebrew language to interested church members.

On July 3,1835 some of the saints at Kirtland purchased the mummies and papyrus [from a Mr. Chandler], and I [Joseph, Smith, Jr.], with W. W. Phelps and Oliver Cowdery as scribes, 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 their place, as I proceed to examine or unfold them. Truly can we say, The Lord is beginning to reveal the abundance of peace and truth. [LDS Church History, vol 2, pp 235-236; RLDS Church History, vol 1, pp 568-569]

From 1835-1836, Joseph occasionally mentions in his diary working with his scribes to create a grammar of the Egyptian language as an aid in translating the papyri, working on the translation and displaying the mummies and papyri to interested parties.


During the entire process of translation of the Book of Abraham, Joseph never claimed direct inspiration of God. Apparently it was produced through application of his acquired knowledge, rather than with any claim to extraordinary [divine] assistance. [C. Webb, Joseph Smith as a Translator (Salt Lake City: Deseret News Press, 1936), p.73]

Although at times Joseph referred to the ancient records as "sacred", he never referred to the Book of Abraham as scripture. In the Doctrine and Covenants, there are many references to the Bible and the Book of Mormon. There was no reference in the 1844 edition of the Doctrine and Covenants to the Book of Abraham even though the Book of Abraham had been purchased 9 years prior and had been published 2 years before the death of Joseph Smith.

The first part of the translation of the Book of Abraham was finally published in Times and Seasons [vol 3, No.9 (March 1,1842), pg 703-706]. The title and preface read as follows: "Of some ancient Records that have fallen into our hands, from the Catacombs of Egypt, purporting to be the writings of Abraham, while he was in Egypt, called the Book of Abraham, written by his own hand, upon papyrus." The use of the words "purporting to be" would seem to indicate at least some degree of doubt on the part of Joseph Smith, Jr. regarding its authenticity. This same preface as written above is repeated verbatim in the LDS History, vol 4, p 524. The original 1851 edition of the Pearl of Great

Price carried the same inscription. In the later editions of the Pearl of Great Price, as published by the LDS Church, the preface is also given, however, without the words, "purporting to be."

The same edition of the Times and Seasons that carried the first portion of the Book of Abraham, is also found the "Wentworth Letter" in which Joseph outlined the beliefs of the church. In the outline, Joseph stated, "We believe the Bible to be the word of God as far as it is translated correctly; we also believe the Book of Mormon to be the word of God." Even though the first installment of the Book of Abraham was being published, Joseph neglects to mention it as part of the beliefs of the Church.

Two months prior to Joseph Smith's death, an article was published in the Times and Seasons which stated, "If any man writes to you, or preaches to you, doctrines contrary to the Bible, the Book of Mormon, or the book of Doctrine and Covenants, set him down as an impostor." [Times and Seasons, vol 5, No.7 (April 1,1844), pg 490] What is interesting is that there is no mention of the Book of Abraham, even though it had been published two years prior while Joseph was the editor of the Times and Seasons.

If Joseph Smith was responsible for both the Inspired Translation of the Bible (Inspired Version) and the Book of Abraham AND IF he considered both scriptural, why didn't he modify both to teach the same thing ( either a monotheistic God or plurality of Gods. The abrupt difference would suggest that his translation of the Book of Abraham was simply an honest human effort by one interested in ancient languages. Because his perceptions of the Egyptian alphabet gave rise to the translation that discusses plural gods it does not necessarily endorse that belief. Compare KJV Genesis 1:1-5 with the Inspired Version Genesis 1:3-8 which inidcate monotheism and the Book of Abraham 4:1-5 which inidicates polytheism.

I seem to recall that in the Hebrew language, the plural form of a word is sometimes used only to emphasize the importance of the subject, not to be taken as literally plural. Recall those Hebrew classes in which Joseph was a student? Might it also be that references to "Gods" may really mean that there is only one but a very important God?


It is thought by some that Lucy Mack Smith, mother of the prophet, had been instrumental in the original purchase of the mummies and papyri. This might explain why she was able to gain custody of the Egyptian artifacts after the death of Joseph Smith, Jr. When she died in May 1855, Emma Smith, Joseph's wife, took custody. A little over a year later, Emma sold the mummies and papyri to Mr. A. Combs. For many years, it was presumed that the mummies and the papyri were eventually taken to Chicago for museum display. After the great Chicago fire of 1871, it was believed that all had been destroyed. However, the records were no longer to be found. Consequently, Joseph's translation would have to stand unchallenged for many years to come - accepted only on faith.


During the 1880 semiannual conference of the LDS Church, the Pearl of Great Price was accepted as one of their standard books of scripture. Along with it, the Book of Abraham was elevated to scriptural status. As canonized scripture, the LDS Church committed itself to the accuracy and validity of the book.


In 1967, what some claim to be Joseph’s papyri were rediscovered in the archives of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The artifacts even included the bill of sale, signed by Emma Smith Bidamon. According to Dr. Hugh Nibley the documents were not the source material for the Book of Abraham. Among other things, the papyri of Joseph Smith's day specifically mentioned a small amount of red ink. There was no red ink to be found on the recently acquired documents. Dr. Nibley identified the papyri as the "Book of Breathings." There are certain similarities, however, between Joseph Smith1s still existent Egyptian alphabet and some of the newly discovered papyri. Some feel certain that certain portions of these papyri were in fact used by Joseph when he wrote the Book of Abraham. However, current translations have no similarity to Joseph's translation but are in fact pages from the Book of the Dead belonging to the lady Ta-shert-Min, daughter of Nes-Khensu and from the Book of the Dead belonging to lady Amon-Re Neferirnub. The facsimiles, as published in the Pearl of Great Price, are identical to those found with the papyri, and are consistent with the Egyptian Book of Breathings. Those who are dedicated to the authenticity of the Book of Abraham are not in agreement regarding how to explain the inconsistencies from the analysis of these "new" papyri.

In an interesting comparison, the BOM had two sets of witnesses. The group of three witnesses testify of being shown the plates by the gift and power of God. The group of eight witnesses testify of physically being shown the plates by Joseph Smith and handling the plates. The two groups together indicate the physical existance of the plates and the divine authority and protection.

If the Book of Abraham is an inaccurate translation of a BoB or a BOD, then Joseph's translation of the BOM could be brought into question. I see the translation of the BOM by Joseph Smith as being through the gift and power of God. I see the translation of the BoA by Joseph Smith as being a human effort alone, without the assistance of God. By accepting the BOM as scripture and not accepting the BoA as scripture, I am not condemning Joseph Smith's efforts. I see Joseph Smith as very human, and when acting on his own was lousy at translating ancient languages. I consider the translation of the BoA to be considered solely the human effort of a very human Joseph Smith. I am, instead, praising the handiwork of God. The importance of the BoA is to prove to the world that it was God who preserved and provided us with the BOM, not Joseph Smith. As more and more evidences are found to support the Book of Mormon, it is not Joseph Smith that is vindicated but Almighty God, Himself.

I am RLDS, hence a different perspective.

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