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. At the 2012 FAIR Conference, Gee updated his findings using a better formula and stated that the missing role would have been closer to "about 314 centimeters, which is about ten feet three and a half inches give or take a foot"[2]. 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 of the papyri were burned in the Chicago fire and it's possible that other fragments were lost or destroyed elsewhere. Dr. Gee believes that Joseph Smith originally had five papyrus scrolls (one of which was the hypocephalus).[3] 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.[4]

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[5] and that in all, Joseph may have had eight times as much papyri as what is currently extant.[6] 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 so little of the ancient scrolls are available for examination!

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.

Compelling scholarship indicates that the missing scroll was the source for the Book of Abraham translation

Most evidence (most importantly the eye witness accounts now points to the long scroll theory being the most accurate.

Kerry Muhelstein and Megan Hansen described the evidence supporting the theory that the long roll was the source for the Book of Abraham:

One of the most pressing questions concerning the Book of Abraham has to do with its very origin. What was the source of Joseph’s translation? This question became more important when the Metropolitan Museum of New York revealed that it had obtained some of the papyri Joseph Smith had owned, including Facsimile 1. They gave these papyri—known as the Joseph Smith Papyri—to the Church, and fervor over the Book of Abraham ensued. The texts on these papyrus fragments were translated as versions of common Egyptian funerary texts. The text adjacent to Facsimile 1 was a copy of the Book of Breathings, a composition which was designed to help the deceased reach his desired goals in the afterlife.

Once the existence of the papyri had been made public, the immediate assumption was that text adjacent to Facsimile 1 must have been the text from which Joseph Smith translated the Book of Abraham. The idea that the text adjacent to Facsimile 1 was the source of the Book of Abraham was a tantalizing supposition. Because we now have the ability to translate such texts, this idea appealed to Mormon and non-Mormon alike; the former group anxious to have some palpable proof of the prophet’s inspiration and the latter wanting evidence against his revelatory ability. Although many in both groups are still unaware of it, their hopes were based on an assumption, and a problematic assumption at that. While at first glance it seems reasonable to assume that the text adjoining Facsimile 1 would be the place to look for the source of the Book of Abraham, there are many reasons to discard this assumption. The six most salient follow:

  1. Even with modern publication software and technology, we often are not able to place an illustration right next to the text with which it is associated. Hence when textbooks say “see figure 3.2,” that figure is often on a different page. Even with the sophisticated electronic layout abilities we have developed, when I ask my students how many of them have textbooks in which this is the case, almost every hand goes up. This dissonance between text and picture is even more pronounced with ancient papyri; it is common to find the picture (on Egyptian papyri we call them vignettes) some distance from the text. [7] Such incongruity was especially endemic to the Ptolemaic era, the time period during which the Joseph Smith Papyri were created, [8] and to the type of text we find next to Facsimile 1. [9] In this case, the Joseph Smith Papyri turns out to be exactly like most papyri of its day.
  2. Furthermore, during the time period in which the Joseph Smith Papyri were created, it was common not only for the text and its accompanying picture to be separated from each other, but also for the wrong vignette to be associated with a text, or for vignettes and texts to be completely misaligned on a long scroll. [10] The content of a vignette and the content of the text frequently lack any apparent connection. [11] This is particularly common in Books of Breathing, the type of text which is adjacent to Facsimile 1 on the Joseph Smith Papyri. [12]
  3. There is no known case of any vignette remotely like Facsimile 1 that is associated with the type of text that is adjacent to it. No other copies of the Book of Breathings contain anything similar. Based on ancient parallels to the Book of Breathings, the most likely conclusion is that the picture next to the text was not associated with the text.
  4. The Book of Abraham itself says that the fashion (or drawing) of the idolatrous gods is “at the beginning” (Abraham 1:14), presumably of the record or papyrus on which the text is recorded. This statement seems to indicate that the vignette depicting the altar and idols is not adjacent to the text, but some distance from it—at the beginning. We do not know whether it was Abraham or a later scribe who created the drawing and inserted the statement. Furthermore, in the oldest Book of Abraham manuscripts we have, this phrase was inserted after the rest of the text was written, meaning that Joseph or his scribes likely inserted it as they were preparing to publish the text. We cannot tell who wrote this line.
  5. A few accounts indicate that the source of the Book of Abraham had some Hebrew characters on it. [13] None of the fragments we have today contain any Hebrew characters. Thus we must conclude that the eyewitnesses were describing texts other than those we now possess.
  6. Finally, eyewitness accounts from Joseph Smith’s day agree that the Book of Abraham was on the long roll. Through museum documents we can corroborate that the long roll was sold to the Chicago museum. Unfortunately, it was destroyed by fire in 1871. [14] The small portion on the outside of that roll seems to have been cut off and mounted for its protection (it is always the outermost edge of a scroll that is damaged the most, and Joseph must have felt that this damaged piece needed preservation efforts). Because this part of the scroll was glued to paper that dates back to the Kirtland period, [15] and eyewitness accounts agree that the Book of Abraham was translated from the large roll after the fragments had been cut off, [16] eyewitnesses of the papyri during the Nauvoo period did not think that the fragments we have today contained the Book of Abraham. Again, we are forced to conclude from the historical evidence at hand that the fragments we now have are not the source of the Book of Abraham.

Given the problems with the assumption that the text surrounding Facsimile 1 was the source of the Book of Abraham and the fact that we possess only a small percentage of the original papyrus roll on which Facsimile 1 was drawn (perhaps about 5 percent), we must conclude that it is most unlikely and foolhardy to insist that the text adjoining Facsimile 1 must be the text of the Book of Abraham. Yet critics insist on this faulty assumption.

This brings up the question of how much papyri Joseph Smith had, and especially how long the papyrus with Facsimile 1 might have been. The fragments we have today (which contain Facsimile 1 and the adjacent text) consist of less than two feet when pieced together. But how long was the scroll originally, and did it contain the source of the Book of Abraham?

We know from eyewitnesses that Joseph had “two papyrus rolls, besides some other ancient Egyptian writings.” [17] From the surviving papyri, we can identify five different ancient owners, indicating that there were at least five different sets of papyri. A variety of accounts establish that at least two of these were sizable scrolls. Other contemporary witnesses describe a number of fragments of papyrus contained under glass, [18] a “long roll” reportedly containing the Book of Abraham, [19] as well as “another roll.” [20]Thus our available historical evidence establishes the existence of a fair-sized scroll, another longer scroll, and several other pieces of papyri. The bulk of the writing must have been on the two rolls of papyrus.

As to size, we can no longer be certain of the rolls’ length. Various methods have been attempted to ascertain their length, but the most accurate likely comes from John Gee’s application of a mathematical formula (which has been used by other Egyptologists) [21] in which the circumference of the roll and how tightly it was wound can be used to calculate its original length. Employing this mathematical formula, Gee has estimated that the scroll anciently owned by Seminis (the shorter roll) would have been about twenty to twenty-four feet long. [22] The longer scroll (which contained Facsimile 1) was anciently owned by a priest named Horus. It is estimated to have been over forty-two feet long. [23] This combined evidence paints a convincing picture that Joseph Smith had a large quantity of papyrus in his possession. Because it is very common for a papyrus roll to have writing on both sides, a conservative estimate approximates over eighty feet of text on the roll that contained Facsimile 1. These findings indicate that we have only about 2.5 percent of what Joseph originally had. Clearly there was room for the Book of Breathings, the Book of Abraham, and a host of other texts on the long roll. During that time, it was not uncommon to have multiple texts on a single papyrus.[24]

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, "Book of Abraham, I Presume" FAIR Conference 2012.
  3. 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
  4. Hugh W. Nibley, "Phase One," Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 3 no. 2 (Summer 1968), 101.
  5. John Gee, A Guide to the Joseph Smith Papyri (Provo, Utah: FARMS, 2000), 12–13.
  6. 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.
  7. See Marc Étienne, “Livre des Morts au nom de Hor,” in La mort n’est pas une fin: Pratiques funéraires en Égypte d’Alexandre à Cléopâtre, ed. Alain Charron (Arles: Musée de l’Arles antique, 2002), 145, and Jean-Claude Goyon, Le Papyrus du Louvre N. 3279 (Cairo: IFAO, 1966), 2.
  8. See Marc Coenen, “Horos, Prophet of Min Who Massacres His Enemies,” Chronique d’Égypte 74 (1999): 257–59; Malcolm Mosher Jr., “The Ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead in the Late Period: A Study of Revisions Evident in Evolving Vignettes, and the Possible Chronological or Geographical Implications for Differing Versions of Vignettes” (PhD diss., University of California at Berkeley, 1989), 1:53–54; Étienne, “Livre des Morts,” 145; and Jean-Claude Goyon, Le Papyrus du Louvre N. 3279 (Cairo: IFAO, 1966), 2; and Valérie Angenot, “Discordance entre texte et image. Deux exemples de l’Ancien et du Nouvel Empires,” Göttinger Miszellen 187 (2002): 11–21.,
  9. 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 (Leuven: Peeters, 1998), 1123.
  10. Mosher, “The Ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead,” 1:53–54.
  11. Étienne, “Livre des Morts au nom de Hor,” 145, and Goyon, Le Papyrus du Louvre (IFAO, 1966), 2.
  12. Coenen, “Dating of the Papyri Joseph Smith,” 1123.
  13. Oliver Cowdery, Messenger and Advocate, December 1835, 234; William I. Appleby Journal, May 5, 1841, MS 1401 1, Church History Library, Salt Lake City.
  14. H. Donl Peterson, The Story of the Book of Abraham: Mummies, Manuscripts, and Mormonism (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1995), 215–16, and John Gee, “Some Puzzles from the Joseph Smith Papyri,” 123.
  15. It seems that these scratch papers were not carried to Nauvoo, not only because the Saints did not carry a tremendous amount with them from Kirtland, but especially they had difficulty getting any of their papers out of Missouri. The documents they wanted they carefully hid and transported, making it unlikely that scratch paper would be among these guarded hoards of paper. Thus the logical and most likely conclusion is that the papyrus fragments were glued to these papers before leaving Kirtland and almost certainly before they arrived in Nauvoo. Research regarding the date of the gluing is ongoing.
  16. Henry Caswell, “The Mormons,” The Visitor or Monthly Instructor for 1842 (1842): 406, describes Facsimile 1 as being already under glass by at least 1842. Similarly his traveling companion, Josiah Quincy and Charlotte Haven, both say that they were told (one by Joseph Smith the other by Lucy Mack Smith), that the Book of Abraham was written on the long roll. Josiah Quincy, Figures of the Past from the Leaves of Old Journals (Boston: Roberts Brothers, 1883), 386; and Charlotte Haven to her mother, February 19, 1843, in “A Girl’s Letters from Nauvoo,” Overland Monthly, December 1890, 624. Thus we must conclude that the prophet did not feel that any of the fragments we have are the source of the Book of Abraham.
  17. W. W. Phelps, letter dated July 19–20, 1835, as printed in Improvement Era 45 (1942): 529.
  18. Henry Caswall, The City of the Mormons; or, Three Days at Nauvoo, in 1842 (London: Rivington, 1842), 22; and Quincy, Figures of the Past, 386.
  19. Charlotte Haven letter; and Jerusha W. Blanchard, “Reminiscences of the Granddaughter of Hyrum Smith,” Relief Society Magazine, September 1922, 9.
  20. Charlotte Haven letter. See also 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, ed. Andrew Hedges, Donald W. Parry, and Stephen D. Ricks (Provo, UT: FARMS, 2000), 175–217.
  21. Friedhelm Hoffmann, “Die Länge des P. Spiegelberg,” in Acta Demotica (Pisa: Giardini Editori e Stampatori, 1994), 151.
  22. John Gee, “Some Puzzles from the Joseph Smith Papyri,” FARMS Review 20, no. 1 (2008): 120–21.
  23. Gee, “Some Puzzles.” Moreover, Hugh Nibley recalls his father being told by Joseph Smith’s nephew, Joseph F. Smith, that when the Prophet worked on the scroll in the mansion house it was long enough to extend through two rooms. See Hugh Nibley, “Phase I,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 3, no. 2 (1968): 101.
  24. Kerry Muhlestein, “Egyptian Papyri and the Book of Abraham: A Faithful, Egyptological Point of View,” in No Weapon Shall Prosper: New Light on Sensitive Issues, ed. Robert L. Millet (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University; Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2011), 217–43.