Dialogue Topic Pages #5: The Book of Abraham

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Dialogue is proud to launch a new monthly podcast series on the dialoguejournal.com/topicpages, exploring key issues in the history of LDS scholarship. Join host Taylor Petrey, editor of Dialogue and associate professor of religion at Kalamazoo College as he studies Book of Abraham as viewed through the scholarship found within Dialogue’s pages.

Act 1: Discovery of the Joseph Smith Papyri

Act 2: Interpretations

Act 3: Egyptologists Are Back!

Other Sources

Editor’s Note: This transcript has been lightly edited from the podcast format. The I used in the text signifies Taylor Petrey and most of the historical narrative was written by him. Some extra context has been given where he worked from notes and may differ slightly from the podcast. This article should not be considered a scholarly or academic attempt at writing this history, but rather a public offering to encourage learning more about the topics discussed in Dialogue.

This month, we are looking at the history of scholarship on the Book of Abraham. And this is an exciting time in this field. The Joseph Smith Papers Project just published the manuscripts and critical edition. There is also a couple of new books, one by Terryl Givens with Brian Hauglid, The Pearl of Greatest Price, and Dan Vogel, Book of Abraham Apologetics. But the story that I want to tell here is the history of scholarship as seen through the pages of Dialogue, including the foundational role that the journal played from the very beginning with the Joseph Smith Papyri were discovered in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC in 1967. This discovery included not only a lengthy textual document, but also the original of the canonized Facsimile 1 in the Pearl of Great Price. This was a huge moment for Dialogue as the hub for open discussion of this groundbreaking new find.

Imagine if we found the gold plates and then had a chance to study them and translate them…and it turned out they didn’t say anything like what the Book of Mormon says. That is basically what happened to the Book of Abraham in the 1960s when the papyri were discovered. Since then, the question of the relationship of Joseph Smith’s Book of Abraham to those ancient documents has been a source of intense debate that has been used as a wedge to mediate the authenticity of Joseph Smith’s prophetic calling and translation abilities, including as it relates to the Book of Abraham, one of the most controversial of all of Smith’s translations projects.

Act 1: Discovery of the Joseph Smith Papyri

Unlike the Book of Mormon, Book of Moses, and Doctrine and Covenants 7, with the Book of Abraham we actually have a unique feature in that we can compare Smith’s translation with the source text for the first time. This is true not only for the text, but also Smith’s interpretation of the three images, facsimiles 1, 2, and 3.

Joseph Smith had purchased the authentic Egyptian papyri along with four mummies in 1835. This was a period of traveling exhibits and Egyptomania in American culture, so while it is a little remarkable, the fact that ancient mummies and papyri ended up in frontier Ohio wasn’t totally strange. Smith was interested in translating the documents and almost immediately declared them to be records of the patriarchs Abraham and Joseph.

These original texts are the Joseph Smith Papyri, and their discovery in 1966 sent shockwaves through the church and broader American culture. They’d been thought lost for over 100 years and were thought to be destroyed in the Chicago fire in 1871. On November 27, 1967, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC gave 11 Egyptian papyri fragments to the church that had once belonged to Joseph Smith and even had his handwriting on the accompanying paper. They’d been acquired by the Met in 1947 and sat in the basement of the museum for decades, unaware of their significance.

The Winter 1967 issue was the first to cover the topic and printed pictures of the documents, with BYU Studies just behind. This first issue also had exclusive interviews with Professor Aziz Atiya of the University of Utah non-Mormon professor who discovered them by accident while doing other research. He recognized them immediately given his familiarity with LDS texts and beliefs. Hugh Nibley at BYU was consulted to authenticate them.

You can imagine that there may have been a lot of initial hope in some quarters that these would vindicate Smith’s prophetic translation abilities. Others may have expected them to reveal that he was a fraud. In 1912, Eyptologists challenged Smith’s translations of the facsimiles. So, scholars were aware of potential problems, but it had also been mostly ignored by Latter-day Saints. But the papyri changed all that.

Right from the start in the preliminary reports published in Dialogue, they were recognized as coming from the Egyptian Book of the Dead. They hadn’t definitely dated them yet, but they knew they were much later than the time period of Abraham.

The summer 1968 issue then followed up with the first translations of these documents based on the photos the church had published in the Improvement Era, as well as another that had been discovered in the Church Historian’s Office and with a roundtable on the subject. Dialogue editors commissioned Egyptologists John Wilson of the University of Chicago and Richard Parker of Brown University to produce the translations and initial analysis. This issue also included analysis from two people who opposed the authenticity of the Book of Abraham, including anti-Mormon Jerald Tanner, as well as an essay by RLDS church historian Richard P. Howard and another by Hugh Nibley. It was the true spirit of Dialogue to bring lots of different perspectives.

So, it was confirmed that the translations did not have anything to do with Abraham nor the facsimiles. They pointed out that the documents were spells from the Book of the Dead belonging to an Egyptian woman and Book of Breathings and dated them initially to 500 and 300 BCE respectively, which was too early according to later analysis. Fascilime 1 is fragmentary, but shows the jackal-headed Anubis over the dead body of Osiris with Isis in the form of a bird hovering over Osiris’s erect penis to be miraculously impregnated by his dead body. These texts would be buried with the dead as a guide to the afterlife. This is not a sacrificial scene at all, despite its representation as such in the explanation of the facsimile. Even if the surviving documents weren’t used for the Book of Abraham, getting around the mistranslations of the facsimiles was not possible.

Just to clarify because it can be hard to keep track. This initial assessment is important, but further study has shown that the 11 fragments are all funerary texts, and actually make up three separate collections. Two are from the Book of the Dead for two different women and the third is from the Book of Breathing for a priest named Hor, or sometimes called Horos, who we actually learned about from later discoveries as a Ptolemaic-era priest from Thebes.

Now, all of this happened to coincide with another development in the 1960s. In the 1800s, Joseph Smith and his close companions produced something called “Grammar and Alphabet of the Egyptian Language,” which is actually multiple documents and contains the only copies of facsimiles 2 and 3, which are now lost. Anyway, this project was their early attempt to develop a systematic translation of the papyri, where they were copying down the Egyptian characters and assigning meanings to them. In 1966, just before the discovery of the papyri themselves, Jerald Tanner had published a bootlegged copy of the Egyptian Grammar and Alphabet. It is a strange document. This showed that Smith didn’t know the underlying languages, including in his attempts to translate the fascilimes. Tanner’s article in Dialogue showed that Smith used the Book of the Breathings for the Book of Abraham. Smith believed the other scrolls, what we now know was the Book of the Dead, was a copy of a Book of Joseph, the ancient patriarch, great grandson of Abraham, but he never attempted a translation.

RLDS Church Historian Richard P. Howard saw the implications of all of this: “One real possibility…would be that the Book of Abraham is not a translation at all, in the sense of transferring ideas from the Egyptian to the English language” (92).

Nibley, however, identified this as Phase 1 and said “The investigation of the Book of Abraham has still far to go before we can start drawing significant conclusions.” (99). He offered a theory early on that there may be more manuscripts discovered and laid out a path forward for the authentication of the Book of Abraham—it should proceed on the basis of the supposed ancient content of the Book, not on its relationship to the actual ancient documents. He proposes turning to the ancient legends of Abraham as comparison for Smith’s versions. The correspondence between the ignorant Smith’s Abraham and the other ancient legends about Abraham was more than a coincidence, for Nibley. He also attempts to draw some rather superficial parallels between the actual documents and the teachings of Smith, the Book of Abraham, and other LDS beliefs. But he also acknowledged that it was possible that the Book of Abraham was a revelation, and not a translation at all.

And thus, the terms of the debate were formed from this first phase.

The Fall 1968 issue then offered another fuller translation by Egyptologist Klaus Baer from the University of Chicago of the funerary text the Book of Breathings, or more accurately titled “The Breathing Permit of Hor.” Hor was the deceased priest to whom the document belonged. This provided a more precise date for the documents, c. 100 BCE, during the Ptolemaic period. For the first time, a full translation of the text, as well as of the fascilimes, and the Egyptian Alphabet and Grammar, was produced.

Act II: Interpretation

We’ve seen how in many ways the terms of the interpretation focused on historicity in this initial stage. Everyone agreed that the papyri didn’t contain the Book of Abraham. So then the question was whether some other lost portion might have contained it, whether Smith invented the text of the Book of Abraham himself, or whether he received it via revelation. But the content of the papyri and the Book of Abraham just didn’t intersect. So the study went in different directions.

Nibley developed his comparison of the Book of Abraham to other apocryphal stories about Abraham in Jewish, Christian, and Islamic literature, sometimes from more than a 1000 years apart, in a BYU Studies article, which expanded on his preliminary arguments in Dialogue.

In 1973, William E. Dibble wrote “The Book of Abraham and Pythagorean Astronomy.” This one looks at speculative cosmology traditions of Pythagoras and his school as a comparison for the sometimes strange cosmology and astrology of chapter three in Book of Abraham. Its really just a note, but indicates again the new directions that attention to these documents were bringing.

In 1988 and 1989, two really important articles are published. The first was Anthony Hutchinson, “A Mormon Midrash? LDS Creation Narratives Reconsidered.” This article looks at the Book of Moses and Book of Abraham‘s creation narratives, which are expansions and retellings of Genesis 1-3. Hutchinson then examines ancient practices that did similar things with biblical literature, from the insights of biblical studies. He is particularly interested in the well-known theory that Genesis 1 and Genesis 2-3 are actually written by different authors, and represent two different creation stories. Besides the historical dating of these creation stories that is far later than the historical characters of Moses or Abraham, Hutchinson notes that both the Book of Moses and Book of Abraham attempt to unify these two sources in new ways, resolving problems in the text and expanding on new possibilities. He compares this to the literary project of “midrash,” a Jewish practice that retold biblical stories to expand their meaning. Hutchinson continues the analysis with the Temple creation accounts as well. This is a classic article for providing a close comparison of the creation accounts, assessing their meaning, hypothesizing a genre that makes sense of Moses and Abraham, and more. If you want a deep dive, as well as an example of LDS engagement with biblical studies, this is a crucial starting point.

In Winter 1989 Karl Sandberg published his article, “Knowing Brother Joseph Again: The Book of Abraham and Joseph Smith as Translator.” This is really a foundational article too. Here, he discusses the modern era apocryphal stories about Abraham that are also found in the Book of Abraham, especially those of the Jewish Kabala, which depict Abraham as an astronomer persecuted by idolaters. But the key issue for Sandberg is the deeper question, what did Joseph mean when he called himself a translator? “Translator” was a title that Smith was given many times in his revelations collected in the Doctrine and Covenants, along with prophet, seer, and revelator. In many ways, the last ten years of LDS scholarship have been obsessed with this question, with several books and articles getting at it. But Sandberg is really kicking off this line of inquiry, that would not only explain the Book of Abraham, but tell us something about Joseph Smith with the simple question: “What is translation?”

Normally, we define translation today as taking a document in one language and producing a document in another language through the use of a variety of techniques to render the meaning. But that isn’t what Joseph Smith meant by translation—basically, because in every case but once in the mid 1830s Hebrew class he took, his translations didn’t involve knowing the ancient language, and usually didn’t involve consulting ancient manuscripts. Further, in Smith’s own time the term “translation” took on a wider register of meaning, including practices in deciphering occult symbolism. The article looks at the use of the term translation in the Book of Mormon and other early Mormon sources to show how its meaning doesn’t correspond to the simple definition we might have for it.

Sandberg puts forward the “catalyst” theory, not only for the Book of Abraham but for the Book of Mormon, that Joseph Smith’s interactions with these material objects, especially stones, prompted divine revelations. Sandberg explains, “in the Joseph Smith experience with translation, the primary contact was not with the contents of a document but with the mind of the seer, which determines what the document should say” (26). The Book of Abraham wasn’t translated with the seer stone, but the Urim and Thummim, which are ancient seer stones in Smith’s understanding that play a role in Abraham’s narrative.

Sandberg then seeks to find the catalysts for the Book of Abraham. First was the new ideas about priesthood that Smith is exploring in other revelations. Second, Smith’s study of Hebrew in 1835 to 1836 had a big impact, as did his encounter with other lore about Abraham during this time, through his Hebrew teacher and other Jewish informants as well as his reading of the ancient source Josephus, which describes Abraham as an astronomer and the first monotheist.

But for Sandberg, the mental and spiritual processes of translation still demand an explanation, and his theory, though not always cited, is a foundational one.

In 1990, there is a brief response to Sandberg’s article by Milan D. Smith, Jr., “‘That is the Handwriting of Abraham.’” He says that Sandberg’s theory of seership that sets aside the literal translation has some explanatory value but doesn’t explain all the times that Smith was seeking, and promising, a literal translation. The “Egyptian Alphabet and Grammar” seeks to do precisely this, with an Egyptian character in one column and a “translation” in the next. He puts a fine point on the challenges to a catalyst theory as not really matching up with how Smith often described his translation project.

So, I don’t want to jump ahead here, but this tension between literal or correspondent translation and a revelatory translation has been a defining issue in the field, and in the fall 2021 issue of Dialogue we have an article by historian Michael MacKay that addresses this in such a fascinating way. Stay tuned!!

Act III: Egyptologists Are Back!

The initial discovery of the JS Papyri caught Latter-day Saints flat footed: there was no one in the community who was a trained Egyptologist. They initially had to rely on outsiders to provide translations and assessments of the meaning of the documents, but it also inspired a number of Latter-day Saints to go into Egyptology and continues to do so today.

In Spring 1995, Stephen Thompson’s “Egyptology and the Book of Abraham” reviews the literature and debates, which had become increasingly mired in apologetics. This article focuses on the facsimiles, which had become really the key place where we can compare Smith’s translations of an actual document with those of the Egyptologists who know the language and culture that produced them. In particular, Michael Rhodes’ short entry in the 1992 Encyclopedia of Mormonism contained the remarkable, and false, claim that “the prophet’s explanations of each of the facsimiles accord with present understanding of Egyptian religious practice.” Thompson’s article challenges this claim.

He walks through a correct dating of these manuscripts, first of all, to the Ptolemaic period, or Greco-Roman era. Many of Nibley’s comparisons were to Egyptian texts more than 1200 years earlier and the comparisons didn’t hold up. Thompson looks at the whole generation of Egyptological apologetics up to that point that attempted to vindicate Joseph Smith’s readings and found them to be pretty weak or just wrong.

This article also examines the translation of the Book of Abraham to see whether it represents something that would come from Abraham or Abraham’s time. It notes numerous anachronisms, such the place name Chaldea, the word Pharaoh, Egyptus, and numerous other terms, historical claims, and ideas that definitively come from a later period.

The Winter 2000 issue has a three article series on the Book of Abraham. Robert Ritner is a famed Egyptologist, first at Yale—where he taught apologist John Gee before their epic rivalry—and later Chicago. He has taken a strong interest in challenging apologetic arguments about this text. Ritner was the student of Klaus Baer, the first person to translate the papyri in the 1968 Dialogue issue. Ritner’s article, “The ‘Breathing Permit of Hor’ Thirty Four Years Later” traces the history of various translations and notes the absence of any formal edition of this text with a full translation and transliteration. He then provides both in this article, an invaluable resource. “The text,” he explains, “is a formal document or permit created by Isis and copied by Thoth to assure that the deified whore regains the ability to breathe and function after death, with full mobility, access to offerings and all other privileges of the immortal gods. The implications, basic symbolism and intent of the text are certain” (115). Ritner later published a critical edition of the papyri that has been considered highly reliable.

Edward Ashment’s short article in the same issue, “Joseph Smith’s Identification of Abraham in Papyrus JS 1, the Breathing Permit of Hor” further connects Joseph Smith’s Egyptian Alphabet and Grammar to the Book of Abraham, showing how Smith (or someone) chose specific Egyptian characters and assigned them to the name “Abraham.” But those characters don’t mean Abraham.

The final article from this series is Bradley Cook, “The Book of Abraham and the Islamic Qisas al-Anbiya (Tales of the Prophets) Extant Literature.” This picks up on arguments that other apologists had been making that there were ancient parallels that Joseph Smith could not have known about between the Book of Abraham and other legends about Abraham. Cook’s article adds Islamic legends to the discussion. Dating to the 800-900s CE in their earliest forms, these stories became quite popular. He dismisses the similarities of the Book of Abraham to ancient Jewish writings that Smith would have known, especially as it relates to Abraham’s astronomical skill. Cook finds numerous parallels to the Islamic literature, which Smith could not have known.

Finally, I want to turn to some recent articles that helped to settle another debate about the Book of Abraham. In Winter 2010, Christopher C. Smith and Andrew W. Cook, “The Original Length of the Scroll of Hor” put an end to the “missing scroll” hypothesis for the Book of Abraham. This had become popularized by John Gee. They used mathematical calculations to determine the spiral of the scroll and how long it might have been. There was not enough space on the scroll to contain a hieratic edition of the Book of Abraham.

Gee pushed back with an alternative mathematical theory in a separate article somewhere else, but Andrew Cook demolishes this argument in Fall 2012, “Formulas and Facts: A Response to John Gee,” in a hilarious pointing out of mathematical errors, showing that Gee’s alternative theory is exactly the same mathematical formula that Cook and Smith had…and it leads to exactly the same results on the length. So much for that.

There are two final developments worth noting. In the mid 2010s as part of a wave of transparency, the LDS church released a Gospel Topics essay on “Translation and Historicity of the Book of Abraham.” It acknowledged there were some ancient parallels but said that its truthfulness doesn’t depend on that. It acknowledges that the translations of Facsimile 1 do not match the Egyptian and that nothing in the papyri corresponds to the Book of Abraham. It puts forward the theory that there are missing elements from the scrolls that might have contained the Book of Abraham, but again this theory is not really supported anymore. At the same time, there is another argument made simultaneously, essentially that “translation” is more a revelation: “Joseph’s translation was not a literal rendering of the papyri as a conventional translation would be. Rather, the physical artifacts provided an occasion for meditation, reflection, and revelation. They catalyzed a process whereby God gave to Joseph Smith a revelation about the life of Abraham, even if that revelation did not directly correlate to the characters on the papyri.” The catalyst theory gained official recognition as one possibility.

The second development is that the Church History Department has now published critical editions of all of these documents as part of the Joseph Smith Papers and can be accessed online. But John Gee has gone to war with the Church History Department, writing a series of misguided articles attacking the Church’s scholars. The LDS historians and Egyptologists who have looked at these issues most closely don’t affirm his theories. But it turns out that the Joseph Smith Papers project is highly reliable, and most of the disagreements are minor differences of interpretation rather than significant points. So, if you’re really interested in the manuscripts, you can go there.


I learned a lot in preparing this episode. What is remarkable to me is how stable the debate has been for the past 50 plus years, focusing on historicity issues, and attempting to provide some historical setting for the Book of Abraham, whether ancient or modern. Most of the major theories were laid out right from the beginning, though the missing scroll theory hasn’t held up. Instead, we are left with the catalyst theory that either produced a revelation of an authentically ancient Book of Abraham or a modern text of genuine religious value, if not a historical one. Or, of course, a fraud. But what is missing has been a serious theological analysis, which we are beginning to see in some quarters, yet much more needs to be done. Hopefully new scholarship will emerge, and hopefully in the pages of Dialogue.