Articles/Essays – Volume 3, No. 2

The Joseph Smith Egyptian Papyri: Translations and Interpretations: The Source of the Book of Abraham Identified

The following evidence that one specific fragment, the “sensen” text, was used by Joseph Smith in obtaining the Book of Abraham was submitted by Grant Heward (who has studied Egyptian on his own and reports that he was recently excommunicated for his views on Joseph Smith’s ability to translate Egyptian) and Jerald Tanner (who heads Modern Microfilm, Co., a, professedly anti­Mormon publishing house). Their work is followed by translation of the sen­sen text by Professor Richard Parker and finally by a discussion of the present state and best future direction of studies of Joseph Smith’s work with Egyptian by professor Hugh Nibley (scholarly defender of the Mormon faith whose continuing argument for the divine origin of the Book of Abraham based on external evidences in the Abrahamic tradition is appearing serially in the Improvement Era).

It now appears that the papyrus fragments recently recovered by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints include the text used by Joseph Smith in his efforts to translate the Book of Abraham. The fragment in question (see illustration No. 1) was identified in the February, 1968, Improvement Era (bottom of p. 40-1) as “XI. Small ‘Sensen’ text (unillustrated).” It would seem that Joseph Smith studied this fragment and concluded that it was writ­ten by Abraham. Then Joseph, or his scribes, copied down a character or two at a time and to the right of each character rendered a translation of its meaning. These translations comprise the original manuscript version of the Book of Abraham. (See illustrations Nos. 2 and 3.)

Dr. James R. Clark of Brigham Young University provides this description of the manuscripts:

As a matter of fact there are in existence today in the Church His­torian’s office what seem to be two separate manuscripts of Joseph Smith’s translations from the papyrus rolls, presumably in the hand writing of Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery; neither manuscript con­tains the complete text of the Book of Abraham. as we have it now. One manuscript is the Alphabet and Grammar. . . . Within this Alphabet and Grammar there is a copy of the characters, together with their translation of Abraham 1:4-28 only. The second and separate of the two manuscripts contains none of the Alphabet and Grammar but is a manuscript of the text of the Book of Abraham as published in the first installment of the Times and Seasons, March 1, 1842.[1]

All of the characters in the first two rows on the papyrus fragment shown in illustration No. 1 can be found attached to the portion of the Book of Abraham in Joseph Smith’s “Egyptian Alphabet and Grammar.” Illustration No. 3 pro­ vides a comparison of characters from one of the handwritten manuscripts with the characters as they appear on the original papyrus.

A photograph of the first page of the second manuscript of the Book of Abraham is found on page 179 of James R. Clark’s Story of the Pearl of Great Price. Dr. Clark writes,

I have in my possession a photostatic copy of the manuscript of the Prophet Joseph Smith’s translation of Abraham l: I to 2: 18. This man­uscript was bought by Wilford Wood in 1945 from Charles Bidamon, son of the man who married Emma after the death of the Prophet. The original of this manuscript is in the Church Historian’s Office in Salt Lake City. The characters from which our present Book of Abra­ham was translated are down the left-hand column and Joseph Smith’s translation opposite, so we know approximately how much material was translated from each character.[2]

This manuscript begins with the statement, “Translation of the Book of Abraham written by his own hand upon papyrus and found in the catacomb[s] of Egypt.” This manuscript is more extensive than that in the “Alphabet and Grammar.” Illustration No. 4 compares characters from this manuscript with those in the third line of the papyrus fragment.

Joseph Smith apparently translated many English words from each Egyptian character. The characters from fewer than four lines of the papyrus make up forty-nine verses of the Book of Abraham, containing more than two thousand words. If Joseph Smith continued to translate the same number of English words from each Egyptian character, this one small fragment would complete the entire text of the Book of Abraham. In other words, the small piece of papyrus pictured in illustration No. 1 appears to be the whole Book of Abraham!

This evidence raises several problems. One is that the Egyptian characters cannot conceivably have enough information channels (component parts) to convey the amount of material translated from them. Another is that the papyrus fragment in question dates from long after Abraham’s time, much nearer, in fact, to the time of Christ. But most important, the Egyptian has been translated, and it has no recognizable connection with the subject matter of the Book of Abraham. The February, 1968, Improvement Era identifies the fragment as a small, unillustrated “Sensen” text. Sensen means “breathings,” and the papyrus fragment has been identified by reputable Egyptologists as a portion of the “Book of Breathings,” a funerary text of the late Egyptian period.

It is interesting to note that not only the manuscripts of the Book of Abra­ham but also Facsimile No. 2 includes portions of this “Book of Breathings.” Evidently the original of Facsimile No. 2 was damaged. That portions of it were unreadable or had fallen away is evident from a drawing found in Joseph Smith’s “Egyptian Alphabet and Grammar” (see illustration No. 5A). The missing areas on this drawing have been filled in with insertions from other documents to make Facsimile No. 2 as it now exists (see illustration No. 5B for a photograph of Facsimile No. 2 as it was published in the Times and Seasons in 1842; notice that the missing areas have been filled in). The area at the top showing a god in a boat was evidently copied from the fragment of papyrus labeled in the February, I 968, Improvement Era (p. 40-D) as “IV. Framed (‘Trinity’) papyrus.”

The Egyptian words meaning “Book of Breathings” have been inserted into other blank areas shown in illustration 5A. These words come from line four of the same fragment of papyrus which Joseph Smith used as a basis for the text of the Book of Abraham. Illustration 5B shows that characters have been copied from lines two and three of the same papyrus fragment. One group of characters from line two was copied twice along the edge of Facsimile No. 2. The characters which follow around the edge were taken from line three.

[1] James R. Clark, The Story of the Pearl of Great Price (Salt Lake City, 1962), pp. 172-173.

[2] James R. Clark in Pearl of Great Price Conference, December 10, 1960 (Brigham Young University, Extension Publications, 1964 Edition), pp. 60-61.