Book of Abraham/Joseph Smith Papyri/Text/Size of missing papyrus

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The "Missing Papyrus" theory for the Book of Abraham

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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.

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.

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Further reading and additional sources responding to these claims


  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.