Book of Abraham/Joseph Smith Papyri/Text

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Why is the Book of Abraham text not on the papyri?

Summary: We do not claim to know why the text of the Book of Abraham (or the missing Book of Joseph) is not in evidence on the fragments of papyrus that were recovered. Critics, of course, simply assume this to be conclusive evidence that Joseph was a fraud. From a believer's perspective, however, there are several possible theories to account for this: 1) The text was revealed much in the same manner as that of the Book of Mormon, without the need for the actual papyri, 2) The text was present on portions of the papyri that are missing, and 3) The Book of Abraham manuscript was attached to the Book of Breathings manuscript and was lost. 4) Perhaps there was a way of understanding the Egyptian ideograms anciently that is unknown to Egyptology in our day, yet to be discovered, deciphered or acknowledged, that could yield an interpretation of a text that is different than the standard Egyptological reading.

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Question: Was the text of the Book of Abraham received through revelation?

This theory assumes that the Book of Abraham was not on the papyri; he received the text by revelation, with the papyri acting as a catalyst

Did the papyri simply serve as a catalyst to prompt such a revelation?

This theory assumes that the Book of Abraham was not on the papyri; he received the text by revelation, with the papyri acting as a catalyst. This is a possibility because Joseph used the word "translation" to mean several things, including the process of receiving pure revelation. (Joseph Smith's revelations call his revision of the Bible a "translation" (D&C 73:4; 76:15; 90:13; 94:10; 124:89), even though he didn't use any Hebrew of Greek manuscripts. Also, D&C 7: is a revealed translation of a lost record written by the Apostle John.)

Question: What is the Book of Abraham "Missing Papyrus theory"?

A formula developed by Friedhelm Hoffmann can be used to determine the total length of a papyrus roll based upon measurements of the extant scroll

At the 2007 FAIR apologetics conference, Egyptologist Dr. John Gee (PhD, Yale) presented new data on the scrolls from which Joseph Smith translated the Book of Abraham. This material has since been published in John Gee, "Some Puzzles from the Joseph Smith Papyri," FARMS Review 20/1 (2008): 113–138. off-site wiki.

Dr. Gee demonstrated how a formula developed by Friedhelm Hoffmann can be used to determine the total length of a papyrus roll based upon measurements of the extant scroll:[1]

Z ≈ ((E2-6.25)/2S) - E


  • S = average difference between winding measurement
  • E = length of last winding
  • Z = theoretical length of the missing proportion

When this formula is used, the Document of Breathings scroll (sometimes called the Book of Breathings) in the Joseph Smith Papyri (JSP) is shown to be missing 41±0.5 feet. Obviously, with so much papyri unaccounted for, it is entirely possible that the Book of Abraham was on the portion of the Joseph Smith papyri which was destroyed. And, that Joseph Smith had this much papyri is attested to by eyewitnesses.

Some internet critics have recently claimed, based on measurements made of the papyri from photographs, that this calculated size is too large. That they would want to deny that there is a large amount of text unaccounted for is understandable, since they cannot then claim that we have the papyrus from which Joseph translated the Book of Abraham, which does not match the Egyptological translation of it.

Individuals can believe whatever they want to about what was on the interior portion of the roll of Horos, and that will be their belief. Scholarship can take us to a certain point, and after that point our assumptions and presuppositions and beliefs plainly take over. We look forward to additional information regarding scroll length based upon recent analysis of the papyri.

Some of the papyri were burned in the Chicago fire and it's possible that other fragments were lost or destroyed elsewhere. A Yale-trained Egyptologist, Gee believes that Joseph Smith originally had five papyrus scrolls (one of which was the hypocephalus).[2] Of these five scrolls, only eleven fragments of two scrolls have survived. The "Scroll of Hor" (the Egyptian Book of Breathings) from where we get Facsimile 1 (and almost certainly Facsimile 3—which didn't survive) is incomplete.

Nibley writes:

We are told that papyri were in beautiful condition when Joseph Smith got them, and that one of them when unrolled on the floor extended through two rooms of the Mansion House.[3]

Nothing like this has survived today. Gee estimates that the Scroll of Hor (likely the putative [supposed] source for the Book of Abraham) may have been ten feet long[4] and that in all, Joseph may have had eight times as much papyri as what is currently extant.[5] A number of scholars contend that the reason that the extant papyrus fragments don't have anything to do with the Book of Abraham is because we don't have that portion of the papyrus that served as the text from whence Joseph translated the Book of Abraham. At the very least, the critics ought to be cautious if only 13% of the ancient scrolls are available for examination!

Accuracy of the formula

According to Gee,

In August 2008 I asked Hoffmann if he still stood by his formula. He could see no reason not to, the math was correct. (I checked the math too; he is correct.) So the formula holds up.

When I first did the math, I checked both the measurements and the formula and its derivation. Critics have thus far not challenged the formula itself, either because if they understand math they can verify its correctness, or if they do not they are incapable of correcting it.

If the formula cannot be critiqued, this leaves only the measurements to be questioned.

The primary points of contention that exists between critics and supporters are the length of each individual winding, and the actual thickness of the papyri. A thinner papyri supports the proposition of a longer scroll, while a thicker papyri indicates a shorter one. The calculation of the length of the windings is determined by selecting artifacts on the papyri, such as rips or tears, which occurred while the papyri were rolled up. The precise selection of these points is dependent upon accurate measurements of the papyri themselves. Attempts to calculate the winding lengths have up until this point been dependent upon photographs, which cannot be relied upon to be accurate. The goal of determining winding length and thickness measurements is to determine a reasonable upper bound for the length of the entire scroll. To this end, several individuals have performed measurements of the actual papyri within the last year.

Potential sources of error in measurement

Gee, who has measured the actual papyri, notes,

There is a lacuna (or gap) in the middle of the roll that eliminates about half a column of text. Because we have other copies of the text we are confident in the general amount missing. Although it could be theoretically calculated, and we know the number of rollings missing, it would be folly to base anything on the measurements of the lacuna. The lacuna and any partial measurements involving lacunae were dropped from the evaluation which I made.

How will this affect the data? One of the numbers required by the formula (S) is an average. All the measurements that make up this average are within 2 mm. of each other so the range of measurements is small. Since the lacuna falls in the middle the preserved papyrus fragments, the measurements cannot be less than the smallest measurement. It will be larger than the largest measurement only if there is a fold in the scroll (which seems unlikely). I do not think that it is practical, possible, or desirable to measure in any units smaller than a millimeter. Any average based on this data will be within the 2 mm range with or without the measurements of the lacuna. It will not adversely affect the data.

Given the inherent error in measurement, there is an error factor of ±0.5 foot.

Length of scroll versus contents

The historical data regarding scroll length must also be taken into account. Gee further notes,

What I find amazingly silly in this discussion is that while the calculated length of the scroll does account for all the known historical data (whereas those who argue against it cannot account for all the known historical data), it does not tell us what was on the scroll. If the critics were honest they would simply say that the length of the scroll does not prove that the Book of Abraham was on it. This is true. I have no problem with that. It also does not prove that the Book of Abraham was not on it.

Since, to the best of our knowledge, the missing portions were destroyed in the Chicago Fire in 1871 and we have not been able to find a copy of the scroll (and I have been through all of Seyffarth's papers in two archives looking for a copy), there is no possible way at this point to determine what was on the scroll. An honest scholarly assessment would simply say that we do not have enough information to determine what was on the part of the scroll that we do not have.

UPDATE (2018): Current scholarship indicates that the horus scroll is not the Book of Abraham

One of the problems working on scholarship is that sometimes a single piece of evidence can upend the field. Until 2012 it was thought that the Horos roll was the long roll from which the Book of Abraham was translated. There was a debate about how long the roll actually was and whether it was long enough to contain the whole Book of Abraham. In 2011, Matthew Roper discovered a new historical account that showed that the various theories upon which the debate was based were false. This was published in 2012. The evidence currently indicates that the Horos scroll was not the scroll that contained the Book of Abraham; before 2012 the general assumption (and the best evidence) indicated that it was. Most evidence (most importantly the eye witness accounts now points to the long scroll theory being the most accurate.

The historical accounts will be published on the site soon and our answers regarding the Book of Abraham will be updated with the latest scholarship on the issue. (This update was written 8/12/2018.)

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

Gospel Topics on, (8 July 2014)
It is likely futile to assess Joseph’s ability to translate papyri when we now have only a fraction of the papyri he had in his possession. Eyewitnesses spoke of “a long roll” or multiple “rolls” of papyrus.32 Since only fragments survive, it is likely that much of the papyri accessible to Joseph when he translated the book of Abraham is not among these fragments. The loss of a significant portion of the papyri means the relationship of the papyri to the published text cannot be settled conclusively by reference to the papyri.


Alternatively, Joseph’s study of the papyri may have led to a revelation about key events and teachings in the life of Abraham, much as he had earlier received a revelation about the life of Moses while studying the Bible. This view assumes a broader definition of the words translator and translation.33 According to this view, 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.

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The "Jewish Redaction" theory

Summary: This theory assumes that the Book of Abraham was on a scroll which is no longer extant. While it's true that the extant portions of the JSP are from the Book of the Dead and the Book of Breathings and do not, according to Egyptologists, translate to anything like the LDS Book of Abraham, this doesn't necessarily mean that the translation didn't derive from Joseph's papyri. There are other scenarios that are compatible with Joseph's claims. We know from other sources, for instance, that sometimes scrolls were attached together.


  1. Friedhelm Hoffmann, "Die Lange des P. Spiegelberg," in Acta Demotica: Acts of Fifth International Conference for Demotists (Pisa: Giardini Editori e Stampatori, 1994), 145–155.
  2. John Gee, "Research and Perspectives: Abraham in Ancient Egyptian Texts," Ensign (July 1992), 60–?.; John Gee, "Abracadabra, Isaac and Jacob (Review of The Use of Egyptian Magical Papyri to Authenticate the Book of Abraham: A Critical Review by Edward H. Ashment)," FARMS Review of Books 7/1 (1995): 19–84. off-site
  3. Hugh W. Nibley, "Phase One," Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 3 no. 2 (Summer 1968), 101.
  4. John Gee, A Guide to the Joseph Smith Papyri (Provo, Utah: FARMS, 2000), 12–13.
  5. John Gee, "Facsimile 3," lecture given at the FARMS Book of Abraham Conference (16 October 1999), personal notes of conference talks by Michael Ash; see also, John Gee, "The Ancient Owners of the Joseph Smith Papyri" (Provo: FARMS, 1999), 1.