Articles/Essays – Volume 43, No. 4

The Original Length of the Scroll of Hôr

These records were torn by being taken from the roll of embalming salve which contained them, and some parts entirely lost; but Smith is to translate the whole by divine inspiration, and that which is lost, like Nebuchadnezzar’s dream, can be interpreted as well as that which is preserved; and a larger volume than the Bible will be required to contain them.

—William S. West (1837)[1]

The Story So Far

Early in the second century B.C., an Egyptian scribe copied a Document of Breathing Made by Isis onto a roll of papyrus for a Theban priest named Hôr.[2] Near the beginning of the document, the scribe penned the following set of ritual instructions: “The Breathing Document, being what is written on its interior and exterior, shall be wrapped in royal linen and placed (under) his left arm in the midst of his heart. The remainder of his wrapping shall be made over it.”[3] Hôr’s mummy, with the Breathing Document enclosed, was buried in a pit tomb near Thebes, where it lay undisturbed for two millennia.

Sometime around 1820, Italian adventurer Antonio Lebolo exhumed a cache of mummies, including Hôr. After Lebolo’s death in February 1830, eleven of his mummies were sold to benefit his children. The mummies were shipped to New York and then forwarded to maritime merchants in Philadelphia, where they were examined by medical doctors and exhibited in the Philadelphia Arcade. At some point, the mummies were delivered to a traveling showman named Michael H. Chandler for further exhibition.[4] Chandler reportedly unwrapped them in search of valuables. On two of the bodies, he found papyrus scrolls wrapped in linen and saturated with a bitumen preservative.[5] As he extracted the Hôr scroll from its sticky encasement, the edges were torn, thus imprinting a repeating pattern of lacunae in the papyrus.

Chandler eventually made his way to Kirtland, Ohio, where he sold the Hôr scroll, along with four mummies, a Book of the Dead scroll made for a woman named Tshenmîn,[6] a Book of the Dead fragment bearing the female name Neferirnûb,[7] another fragment bearing the male name Amenhotep,[8] and a hypocephalus belonging to a man named Sheshonk[9] to Joseph Smith in July 1835 for $2,400.[10] Shortly after the purchase, Smith claimed that one of the rolls in his possession contained a record of the biblical patriarch Abraham, which he began to translate by the gift and power of God.[11] Although Smith died before he could finish the work, his partial translation of the Book of Abraham was canonized in 1880 as part of the Pearl of Great Price. In addition to five chapters of Jacobean English prose, the book includes facsimiles of three vignettes from the papyri: i.e., the hypocephalus of Sheshonk and the introductory and concluding vignettes of the Document of Breathing.[12] The introductory vignette, labeled “Facsimile 1” in the canonized LDS Pearl of Great Price, is said in the text of the Book of Abraham to have appeared “at the commencement” and “at the beginning” of Abraham’s record (Abr. 1:12, 14). This and other evidence points to the Hôr scroll as the papyrus from which Joseph Smith claimed to translate the Book of Abraham.[13]

Prior to Smith’s death, he or one of his associates glued the fragmented outer portion of the Document of Breathing onto stiff paper in an effort to preserve it. Some of the mounted fragments were then cut into shorter sections and preserved under glass.[14] By mounting the outer sections, Smith et al. could work on translating the Egyptian characters without needing to roll and unroll the fragile scroll. After Smith was assassinated in 1844, the mummies and papyri were retained by his mother, Lucy Mack Smith, and briefly taken on an exhibition tour by Joseph’s only surviving brother, William. When Lucy died in 1856, Joseph’s widow, Emma, and her second husband, Lewis Bidamon, sold the artifacts to Abel Combs. Combs divided the collection into two parts. One part, including the intact interior portion of the Hôr scroll, he sold to Wyman’s Museum in St. Louis, which subsequently relocated to Chicago and burned in 1871. The other part, including the mounted fragments from the outer portion of the Hôr scroll, he retained and eventually left to his housekeeper, whose daughter’s widower sold them in 1947 to the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art. The museum turned this portion of the collection over to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on November 27, 1967.[15]

When the papyri were recovered by the Church, it was immediately evident that the Hôr scroll was the source of Facsimile 1. There are also several 1835 manuscripts in the handwriting of Joseph Smith’s known scribes that juxtapose the translated Book of Abraham text with sequential characters from the scroll’s extant instructions column, ostensibly as the source from which the translation was derived.[16] Some LDS historians nevertheless maintain that the source from which Joseph Smith derived the Book of Abraham is not among the extant fragments, and that it was probably destroyed with that portion of the collection which burned in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. These authors have argued that the Hôr scroll was much longer in the nineteenth century than it is today and that the source text of the Book of Abraham may have followed the Document of Breathing on the now-lost inner portion of the scroll. In the view of these researchers, the Book of Abraham’s placement of Facsimile 1 “at the commencement of this record” should be interpreted to mean the beginning of the scroll rather than the record, and the juxtaposition of Breathing Document characters with the Book of Abraham’s English text in the handwritten manuscripts should not be understood to imply a translation relationship between the two.[17]

The question then becomes whether the undamaged scroll of Hôr was ever long enough to accommodate a hieratic Book of Abraham source text. The main text of the canonized Book of Abraham contains 5,506 English words. The hieratic text in the instructions column of the Document of Breathing translates to ~97 English words.[18] This column is ~9 cm wide. Hence, if the Book of Abraham was written on the scroll in the same hieratic font as this portion of the Document of Breathing, it would have taken up ~9(5,506/97) = ~511 cm of papyrus. Since the Book of Abraham translation is incomplete, the actual space required for a hieratic original would presumably have been even longer.[19]

Recently, John Gee proposed that 1250.5 cm (41 feet) of papyrus could be missing from the interior end of the scroll of Hôr. This is obviously more than enough papyrus to contain the extant Book of Abraham. Gee followed an approach pioneered by Friedhelm Hoffmann, which takes advantage of the fact that “the circumference of a scroll limits the amount of scroll that can be contained inside it. Thus, we can determine by the size of the circumference and the tightness of the winding how much papyrus can be missing at the interior end of a papyrus roll.”[20] Gee reported 9.7 and 9.5 cm as the lengths of the first and seventh windings, respectively, but offered no details concerning his method for identifying the winding end-points. When we attempted to replicate Gee’s results, we found that his measurements did not seem to be accurate and, in fact, required the papyrus to be impossibly thin.

The purpose of this paper is to introduce a robust methodology that eliminates the guesswork in determining winding locations by visual inspection of crease marks or lacunae features, and to determine whether the missing interior section of the Hôr scroll could have been long enough to accommodate the Book of Abraham. Fortunately, this is a question that can be definitively answered by examining the physical characteristics of the extant portions of the scroll. The haste and greed of Michael Chandler provide the key to unlocking this mystery.

Editor’s Note: For the analysis of the scrolls, see PDF below.


Note: The Dialogue Foundation provides the web format of this article as a courtesy. Please note that there may be unintentional differences from the printed version. For citational and bibliographical purposes, please use the printed version or the PDFs provided online and on JSTOR.

[1] William S. West, A Few Interesting Facts Respecting the Rise and Progress and Pretensions of the Mormons (Warren, Ohio: Self-published, 1837), 5.

[2] Marc Coenen, “The Dating of the Papyri Joseph Smith I, X and XI, and Min Who Massacres His Enemies,” in Egyptian Religion: The Last Thousand Years, eds. Willy Clarysse et al. (Leuven, Belgium: Peet-ers, 1998): 1103–15. The title has been variously translated as “Book of Breathings,” “Breathing Permit,” “Document of Breathing,” and “Document of Fellowship.” See Dee Jay Nelson, The Joseph Smith Papyri: A Preliminary Translation of the Ta-shert-min & Ter Papyri (Salt Lake City: Modern Microfilm Company, 1968), 5; Klaus Baer, “The Breathing Permit of Hôr: A Translation of the Apparent Source of the Book of Abraham,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 3, no. 3 (Autumn 1968): 111, note 7; Marc Coenen, “An Introduction to the Document of Breathing Made by Isis,” Revue d’Egyptologie 49 (1998): 37–38; John Gee, “Some Puzzles from the Joseph Smith Papyri,” FARMS Review 20, no. 1 (2008): 135.

[3] Robert K. Ritner, “The Breathing Permit of Hôr among the Joseph Smith Papyri,” Journal of Near Eastern Studies 62, no. 3 (2003): 170. 170.    Ritner’s line and column numbers are here omitted.

[4] H. Donl Peterson, The Story of the Book of Abraham: Mummies, Manuscripts, and Mormonism (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1995), 78–80, 87, 167–77.

[5] Oliver Cowdery, Letter to William Frye, December 22, 1835, in Oliver Cowdery Letterbook, 70, Huntington Library, San Marino, Cali-fornia.

[6] Tshenmîn (t3-šr.t-mn)f is rendered as Semminis by Marc Coenen, “The Dating of the Papyri Joseph Smith,” 1104 note, and by John Gee, A Guide to the Joseph Smith Papyri (Provo, Utah: FARMS, 2000), 11. In light of criticism of these authors’ Greek-based transliterations by Ritner, “‘The Breathing Permit of Hor,’” 167, we have opted to follow that of Baer, “The Breathing Permit of Hôr,” 111.

[7] Ibid. Neferirnûb (nfr-ir.t-nwb)f is rendered as Noufianoub by Gee, A Guide to the Joseph Smith Papyri, 11.

[8] John Gee, “Eyewitness, Hearsay, and Physical Evidence of the Joseph Smith Papyri,” in The Disciple as Witness: Essays on Latter-day Saint History and Doctrine in Honor of Richard Lloyd Anderson, edited by Stephen D. Ricks, Donald W. Parry, and Andrew H. Hedges (Provo, Utah: FARMS, 2000), 189. Amenhotep (imn-htp)m is rendered as Amenophis by Gee, A Guide to the Joseph Smith Papyri, 11.

[9] Michael Dennis Rhodes, “A Translation and Commentary of the Joseph Smith Hypocephalus,” BYU Studies 17, no. 3 (Spring 1977): 263. Sheshonk (ššnq)m is rendered as Sesonchis by Gee, A Guide to the Joseph Smith Papyri, 11.

[10] Peterson, The Story of the Book of Abraham, 7–9.

[11] [Manuscript] History of the Church, 2:596, in Richard E. Turley, ed., Selected Collections from the Archives of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, DVD, 2 vols. (Provo, Utah: Brigham Young University Press, 2002), 1:1.

[12] Baer, “The Breathing Permit of Hôr,” 127.

[13] See also Grant S. Heward and Jerald Tanner, “The Source of the Book of Abraham Identified,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 3, no. 2 (Summer 1968): 92–98.

[14] Jay M. Todd, The Saga of the Book of Abraham (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1969), 200–201, 216–17.

[15] Jay M. Todd, “Egyptian Papyri Rediscovered,” Improvement Era 71, no. 1 (January 1968): 12–16.

[16] Heward and Tanner, “The Source of the Book of Abraham,” 92–98.

[17] Gee, A Guide to the Joseph Smith Papyri, 21–23; Gee, “Eyewitness, Hearsay, and Physical Evidence,” 188–89; Kevin L. Barney, “The Facsimiles and Semitic Adaptation of Existing Sources,” in Astronomy, Papyrus, and Covenant, Vol. 3 in STUDIES IN THE BOOK OF ABRAHAM, edited by John Gee and Brian Hauglid (Provo, Utah: FARMS, 2005), 124 note 61.

[18] Michael D. Rhodes, The Hor Book of Breathings: A Translation and Commentary, Vol. 2 in STUDIES IN THE BOOK OF ABRAHAM, edited by John Gee and Brian Hauglid (Provo, Utah: FARMS, 2002), 27–28.

[19] Oliver Cowdery, Letter to Frye, December 22, 1835, expected the completed translation to fill “large volumes.” This expectation was apparently influenced by a belief that Egyptian script was an extremely compact (“comprehensive”) form of writing in which a single character might be translated by dozens or even hundreds of English words. This is the understanding outlined in a nineteenth-century Egyptian Alphabet and Grammar (EAG) that seems to have been produced under Smith’s direction. Advocates of the “missing papyrus theory” however, have contested both this interpretation of the EAG and Smith’s role in its production. Missing papyrus theorists assume that the Book of Abraham is a more or less Egyptologically correct translation of a now-lost hieratic or hieroglyphic text, and thus (by implication) that the proportion of Egyptian to English text would not have been exceptional. See Hugh W. Nibley, “The Meaning of the Kirtland Egyptian Papers,” BYU Studies 11, no. 4 (Summer 1971): 350–99; Christopher C. Smith, “The Dependence of Abraham 1:1–3 on the Egyptian Alphabet and Grammar,” John Whitmer Historical Association Journal 29 (2009): 43–47.

[20] Gee, “Some Puzzles,” 120–21; Friedhelm Hoffmann, “Die Länge Des P. Spiegelberg,” in Acta Demotica: Acts of Fifth International Conference for Demotists (Pisa, Italy: Giardini Editori e Stampatori, 1994), 145–55.

2010: Andrew W. Cook and Christopher C. Smith, “The Original Length of the Scroll of Hôr,” Dialogue 43.4 (Winter 2010): 1 – 42.