Joseph Smith and the Book of Abraham

Outsiders to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints familiar with Mormonism typically have heard something about the Book of Mormon. Perhaps they know that Joseph Smith claimed to have received golden plates from an angel.

Those a bit more familiar with Mormonism might know that Smith also dictated scores of revelations, messages from God that advanced his church’s understanding of doctrine and settled immediate, practical questions.

Many casual students of Mormonism are less familiar with Smith’s other scriptural productions. In the early 1830s, Smith embarked on what he termed a “new translation” of the Bible, emending and expanding the King James text. He attended to some portions of the Bible more closely than others, and the LDS Church eventually included Smith’s expansion of the early chapters of Genesis and a section of Matthew in its scriptural Pearl of Great Price.

In 1835, Smith spent $2,400 to acquire four Egyptian mummies and associated papyri from a traveling salesman. Smith identified the writings as accounts of Abraham and Joseph in Egypt. The Mormon prophet shared a fascination with Egypt and its relics and hieroglyphs with many of his American contemporaries. As Samuel Brown explains in his In Heaven as It Is on Earth, Smith compiled a lexicon of “terms, transliterations, [and] glosses” he associated with the papyri. He understood himself to be unlocking the secret code of a lost language and in the process bringing forth lost histories and doctrines of the ancient world. “The seer,” writes Brown, “could unseal the grave and hear voices, sacred words whispering from the ground that led back to Father Adam and beyond.”

Also, beginning in 1835, Smith produced a text eventually published as the Book of Abraham, eventually included in the church’s Pearl of Great Price. In the text, Abraham receives a vision of the premortal existence of human beings and the creation of the world. Abraham speaks with God “face to face, as one man talketh with another.” The terminology is unfamiliar to newcomers. For example, God reveals a star named Kolob, which is “nearest unto the throne of God.” The Lord reveals to Abraham “the intelligences that were organized before the world,” and he sees “one among them that was like unto God, and he said unto those who were with him: We will go down, for there is space there, and we will take of these materials, and we will make an earth.” The Gods — Smith straightforwardly depicted a plurality of gods active in the work of creation — then organize and form the heavens and the earth. The Book of Abraham clarified significant Latter-day Saint doctrines, especially concerning priesthood, the premortal existence of human beings, and the creation of the world. It was also one important source for the development of the LDS temple liturgy, called the endowment.

After Smith’s 1844 murder, his mother, Lucy Mack Smith, retained the mummies and most of the papyri. She eventually sold them out of poverty. In the mid-1960s, a scholar facilitated the return of the papyri at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York to the church. Soon afterwards, both Mormon and non-Mormon scholars identified the papyri as funerary texts with no apparent relationship to the Book of Abraham translated and published by Joseph Smith. For critics of the LDS Church, the lack of correlation between the funerary texts and the Book of Abraham served as proof that Joseph Smith was a charlatan. Smith pretended to translate documents he could not understand. Such allegations about the Book of Abraham were not new, but the recovery of the papyri rekindled a stale controversy.

Last fall, the LDS church began releasing a series of “Gospel Topics” statements on – primarily – thorny questions which have troubled both church members and inquirers. Recently, the church released a statement on the “Translation and Historicity of the Book of Abraham.”

On the one hand, the statement is apologetic, noting the consistency between the Book of Abraham and other sources of knowledge about the ancient world. On the other hand, the statement emphasizes that the spiritual truth of the Book of Abraham does not hinge on any particular connection between the papyri and the text. It suggests that the Egyptian grammar, for instance, played no obvious role in the translation. The statement cautions that the entirety of the papyri are not extant, but it ultimately rests on a more expansive and less conventional understanding of “translation”:

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. 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.

Indeed, Smith’s scribe at the time Warren Parrish made it clear that Smith “claimed to receive it [the translation of the hieroglyphics] by direct inspiration of Heaven.”

This alternative understanding of “translation” reflects the way that Smith revealed texts such as the Book of Moses in the absence of any physical object. Moreover, it also correlates with more recent church explanations for the Book of Mormon’s translation. Indeed, the editors of a recent Joseph Smith Papers volume describe the Book of Mormon as the “most prominent among Joseph Smith’s revelatory dictations,” a recognition that Smith did not “translate” the text in any conventional sense. “The veracity and value of the book of Abraham cannot be settled by scholarly debate concerning the book’s translation and historicity,” the church’s recent statement on the Book of Abraham concludes. The statement opens the door for church members to simultaneously accept scholarly and non-Mormon analyses of the Book of Abraham while maintaining their faith in the text’s inspiration. The statement will almost certainly not satisfy many critics, partly because Smith also published several facsimile images from the papyri along with his explanations of them. Smith’s annotations of the images correspond with material in the Book of Abraham, but according to Egyptologists, the images themselves do not correspond with Smith’s annotations. Thus, it is not entirely impossible to separate Smith’s revelation from the physical objects that prompted them.

Mormon scholars of Mormonism typically set aside questions of religious truth in their examinations of their subject. There is no good reason for one to offer an opinion about whether or not Joseph Smith saw heavenly beings, for instance. In this case, it is harder to sidestep such judgments. Did Smith mislead his followers into thinking that he had literally decoded the language and symbols found on the papyri he bought for a small fortune? Perhaps so. Indeed, most non-Mormons can hardly avoid this conclusion when examining the Book of Abraham controversy. Then again, perhaps Smith genuinely believed that the papyri contained the narrative he brought forth.

What both the Book of Abraham itself and the church’s recent statements on both that text and on the Book of Mormon remind us is that Joseph Smith had a very expansive understanding of translation, far more expansive than most twenty-first century students of Mormonism. One exception — I find Samuel Brown’s expansive explanation of “translation” helpful in understanding Joseph Smith:

Smith had a revelation to make, a set of religious messages that constantly overflowed the banks of his mind… His mode of translation was a process of finding and assembling from many sources the clues and cues that supported this revelation. Whether he was observing burial mounds or scrying stones or the King James Bible or Masonic liturgy or funerary papyri, Smith had a message whose details arose from careful and passionate reading informed by religious experience and insight … This was more than just syncretism. Smith had a vision, a revelation – his followers believed a divine dispensation – and as his mind roamed over the conceptual landscape he inhabited, myriad phenomena came to speak of this great revelation. Smith was a translator rather than a parrot, an artist rather than a collator. [In Heaven, pp. 10-11]

Regardless of how one assesses the Book of Abraham, Smith did far more than pull a fast one on his followers. He used objects such as the papyri, along with a host of other sources of inspiration, to bring forth a new set of doctrines and rituals that millions of individuals still find compelling.


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