Book of Abraham/Joseph Smith Papyri/Identity and nature

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Identity and nature of the papyrus in the Church's possession

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Gospel Topics on LDS.org: "Mormon and non-Mormon Egyptologists agree that the characters on the fragments do not match the translation given in the book of Abraham"

"Translation and Historicity of the Book of Abraham," Gospel Topics on LDS.org:

The discovery of the papyrus fragments renewed debate about Joseph Smith’s translation. The fragments included one vignette, or illustration, that appears in the book of Abraham as facsimile 1. Long before the fragments were published by the Church, some Egyptologists had said that Joseph Smith’s explanations of the various elements of these facsimiles did not match their own interpretations of these drawings. Joseph Smith had published the facsimiles as freestanding drawings, cut off from the hieroglyphs or hieratic characters that originally surrounded the vignettes. The discovery of the fragments meant that readers could now see the hieroglyphs and characters immediately surrounding the vignette that became facsimile 1.

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, though there is not unanimity, even among non-Mormon scholars, about the proper interpretation of the vignettes on these fragments.[1]—(Click here to continue)


Question: What is the relationship of the Joseph Smith Papyri to the Book of Abraham?

In July 1835, Joseph Smith purchased a portion of a collection of papyri and mummies that had been discovered in Egypt and brought to the United States

Believing that one of the papyrus rolls contained, "the writings of Abraham while he was in Egypt," and "purportedly written by his own hand, upon papyrus,"[2] Joseph commenced a translation. The Book of Abraham was the result of his work.

The translated text and facsimiles of three drawings were published in the early 1840s in serial fashion in the LDS newspaper Times and Seasons. The entire work was published in 1852 in England as part of The Pearl of Great Price, which was later canonized as part of LDS scripture.

Joseph Smith had in his possession three or four long scrolls, plus a hypocephalus (Facsimile 2). Of these original materials, only a handful of fragments were recovered at the Metropolitan Museum. The majority of the papyri remains lost, and has likely been destroyed. Critics who claim that we have all, or a majority, of the papyri possessed by Joseph Smith are simply mistaken.

Other than the vignette represented in Facsimile 1, the material on the papyri does not include the actual text of the Book of Abraham

The Egyptian characters on the recovered documents are a portion of the "Book of Breathings," an Egyptian religious text buried with mummies that instructed the dead on how to successfully reach the afterlife. This particular Book of Breathings was written for a deceased man named Hor, so it it usually called the Hor Book of Breathings.

Other than the vignette represented in Facsimile 1, the material on the papyri received by the Church, at least from a standard Egyptological point of view, does not include the actual text of the Book of Abraham. This was discussed in the Church publication, the New Era in January 1968.


Question: What happened to the papyri after Joseph's death?

The original papyri were thought to have been completely destroyed in the Chicago fire of 1871, but some fragments were discovered in 1966

After Joseph's death, the collection was eventually sold and split up. The original papyri were thought to have been completely destroyed in the Chicago fire of 1871. Fragments, however, including the illustration represented in Facsimile 1, were discovered in 1966 in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, who gave them to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in November 1967.


Question: What do the Joseph Smith papyri fragments consist of?

There are eleven fragments of the original papyrus owned by Joseph Smith. The initial labels given the fragments came from Hugh Nibley's work.

The fragments that exist and their source are described in the table below, as are other materials of interest to students of the Book of Abraham:

Fragments Source Comments
  • The Hor Breathing permit
  • Facsimile 3 was part of this text; the original is not extant.
  • Sometimes called "Horus" instead of Hor.
  • N/A
  • The Hypocephalus of Sheshonk
  • II
  • V
  • VI
  • VII
  • VIII
  • IX (Church Historian's Fragment)
  • Most of IV
  • The Book of the Dead belonging to the lady Tshenmin.
  • Fragment IX was not in the papyri returned to the Church by the Metropolitan Museum of Art; it was discovered in the Church Archives and is sometimes called the "Church Historian's Fragment."
  • IIIa
  • IIIb
  • The Book of the Dead belonging to the musician of Amon Re, Neferimub.
  • This is a single vignette, but has been cut into two pieces; hence the designation as (a) and (b) fragments.
  • N/A
  • Another copy of Book of the Dead.


Question: Did Abraham himself pen the Joseph Smith Papyri?

Although Joseph Smith may have believed this, the papyri only date to a few centuries before Christ

When Joseph Smith obtained the papyri in 1835, he reportedly said that "one of the rolls contained the writings of Abraham...."[3] According to Joseph's scribes, this scroll was "written" by Abraham's "own hand upon papyrus."[4] It seems reasonable to conclude that Joseph believed that Abraham himself, with pen in hand, wrote the very words that he was translating. The problem is that most modern scholars (including LDS scholars) date the papyri to a few centuries before Christ, whereas Abraham lived about two millennia before Christ. Obviously, Abraham himself could not have penned the papyri.

Gospel Topics on LDS.org, "Translation and Historicity of the Book of Abraham"

Gospel Topics on LDS.org, (8 July 2014)
Scholars have identified the papyrus fragments as parts of standard funerary texts that were deposited with mummified bodies. These fragments date to between the third century B.C.E. and the first century C.E., long after Abraham lived.
....
Joseph Smith, or perhaps an assistant at the Nauvoo print shop, introduced the published translation by saying that the records were “written by his [Abraham’s] own hand, upon papyrus.” The phrase can be understood to mean that Abraham is the author and not the literal copyist.

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"Of some ancient Records that have fallen into our hands, from the Catecombs 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.

- Times and Seasons 3/9: 704, emphasis added.

This issue is very similar to that of Book of Mormon geography. It is very likely that Joseph Smith believed in a hemispheric Book of Mormon geography—it made sense to his understanding of the world around him. Such a misinformed belief makes him no less a prophet; it simply provides us with an example of how Joseph—like any other human—tried to understand new information by integrating it with his current knowledge. So, likewise, with the Abrahamic papyri: Joseph, by way of revelation, saw that the papyri contained scriptural teachings of Abraham. It would be natural, therefore, to assume that Abraham wrote the papyri. But, some will ask, how could the teachings of Abraham be present on a document written two thousand years after Abraham lived? As Gee notes, we find the same thing with Biblical manuscripts. There is a major difference, he explains, "between the date of a text [the information contained on the papyri] and the date of a manuscript [the papyri itself]."[5]:15 </blockquote>

The date of a text is the date when the text was written by its author. A text can be copied into various manuscripts or translated into other languages, and these manuscripts or translations will have different, later dates than the date of the original text. When we refer to the date of a text, we refer to the date of the original text. For example, the text of the Gospel of Matthew was written in the first century A.D., but the earliest manuscript that we have of Matthew was copied in the third century.[5]:23-24

If, for example, one held out a modern LDS Bible and pointing to 1 Corinthians asked, "Who penned this book?" most people would respond with, "Paul"

If, for example, one held out a modern LDS Bible and pointing to 1 Corinthians asked, "Who penned this book?" most people would respond with, "Paul." The copy of the scriptures, however, was printed within the last few decades, and the English wording is based on what King James scholars decided that the ancient biblical manuscripts said. Paul, himself, did not pen any modern printing of the scriptural book even if he did author the original text. How can we fault Joseph for basically stating the same thing?

Some LDS scholars propose that the original Book of Abraham "text" was written by Abraham and then "passed down through his descendants (the Jews), some of whom took a copy to Egypt where it was copied (after being translated) onto a later manuscript."[5]:28 Such a proposal makes a lot of sense since we recognize that this the typical provenance of most Biblical documents. As Dr. John Gee (PhD, Egyptology, Yale) notes, "some of the texts in the Book of the Dead manuscripts from the same time as the Joseph Smith Papyri (and even later) are also attested in manuscripts that go back before the time of Abraham."[6]

Video



John Gee, "Book of Abraham, I Presume"

John Gee,  Proceedings of the 2012 FAIR Conference, (August 2012)
So let’s start with the relationship of the Book of Abraham to the Joseph Smith Papyri. There are three different points of view here. One, that Joseph Smith translated the Book of Abraham from the papyri that we have. Almost no one really believes this. But to hear the critics tell it this is the official position of the church. It’s not. Nor do most members of the church subscribe to this so far as I can tell. So, it’s a strawman. The second one is that Joseph Smith translated the Book of Abraham from papyri that we do not currently have and this is the position that most accords with the historical evidence. And the third one is that Joseph Smith received the Book of Abraham strictly by revelation and it did not come from the papyri at all. This position seems to be popular among Latter-day Saints but seems to have no historical evidence to support it.

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Notes

  1. "Translation and Historicity of the Book of Abraham," Gospel Topics (8 July 2014)
  2. Joseph Smith, History of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 7 volumes, edited by Brigham H. Roberts, (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1957), 2:235, 236, 348–351. 236, 348 Volume 2 link
  3. Joseph Smith, History of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 7 volumes, edited by Brigham H. Roberts, (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1957), 2:235-236. Volume 2 link
  4. ""A Translation"," Times and Seasons 3 no. 9 (1 March 1842), 704. off-site GospeLink (requires subscrip.)
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 John Gee, A Guide to the Joseph Smith Papyri (Provo, Utah: FARMS, 2000).
  6. John Gee, personal communication to FairMormon Answers Wiki editors, 10 August 2007, cited with permission.