Joseph Smith and the Book of Abraham

Joseph Smith and the Book of Abraham July 23, 2014

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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  • Dandini

    And, in reality, only a very small portion or fragments of the papyri were turned over to the LDS church. . . . not enough to really get a clear picture of all that was involved. . . . much of the papyri that Joseph had seems to have been lost. . . .

  • cmitc01

    It kills me that the whole revelation (versus traditional translation) theory didn’t come about until experts arrived and soundly refuted Joseph’s original translation claim. With each new scientific discovery this God of the Gaps recedes a bit more and the LDS church is a shining example of this. Once Joseph’s work was refuted by experts the “inspiration” ascribed to him receded from translation by revelation (two fantastic claims, one testable) to merely inspired revelation (one fantastic and entirely untestable claim), undercutting what Joseph explicitly claimed at the time.

    Believers will continue to point to the unknowns of a given situation (Book of Abraham, polygamy, blacks) and find solace there, all the while citing personal revelation as the only real source of truth. The rest of us will just continue to shake our heads realizing that the very system of belief that instilled that notion in them is flawed at so many levels. Sad.

  • TrollAlert50
  • LakersTrent

    The headlines linking to this post are needlessly inflammatory (eg “Did Joseph Smith pull a fast one?” etc). Something like “Did Jesus Christ pull a fast one?”, “Did Mohammed pull a fast one?” “Did Moses pull a fast one?” or even “Did John Paul II pull a fast one?” would hardly be tolerated, even if the underlying article was more even handed. Offending people before you begin is hardly helpful to an enlightening conversation.

  • griffter2010

    Here is my problem with these methods. They are really similar to how Mediums or psychics work and they are adamant in our religion that these people are of the devil. But Joseph wasnt? Why, because he had a penis?

    Then there is the issue of him willfully deceiving everyone that the BoM and BoA are literal translations from physical pieces. If they were all, he had visions of a book and channeled revelation, then fine. But we have to insist there were literally gold plates that he couldn’t let anyone see or they would DIE! So we can’t see the plates and if we could, the translation wouldn’t match what was written on them, because he didn’t *actually* translate, he channeled inspiration through them. What the..?

  • David Tiffany

    “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.”
    You’ve got to be kidding, right?
    I don’t know what’s worse: being deceived by someone, or knowing you’ve been deceived but continuing in the deception and continuing to find excuses for the one who deceived you.
    I would also say that I believe those you are trying to convince are not as stupid as you think they are.

  • Chris

    The author selectively points out that “both Mormon and non-Mormon scholars identified the papyri as funerary texts” but just as selectively leaves out official statements such as “only small fragments of the long papyrus scrolls once in Joseph Smith’s possession exist today.”

    This really matters a lot. There is no disagreement among scholars that they only had fragments of what Joseph Smith had originally–though by leaving out these facts the reader will be inclined to disagree in their absence. This entirely negates the premise of the argument that is logically intended to lead the reader to believe the translations, based on evidence, could only be a sham. It is easy enough to make Mormon’s seem crazy without resorting to spoon-feeding the audience selective bits that create a narrative contrary to what one would see if presented with the entirety of facts. Shame on you. The entire article falls to worthless dribble on this one point.

  • Chris

    I’ve been sitting here and reading some of the supposed references for this article, and it is disgustingly shocking as to some facts the author chose to not so much as reference. For example, most of the papyri were lost and widely believed to have been destroyed in a great fire in Chicago. The mummies and papyri changed hands quite a few times between Smith and the church re-obtaining them much later. The Book of Abraham Joseph Smith claims to have translated mentions names of locations unknown to the modern world at the time, which have since been found and archaeologically confirmed–what?! Yes, that is factual and is in the reading that the author supposedly read and researched to write his article. And he makes reference to a single paragraph on the Mormon website that explains “an alternative view” that some people have, and quotes it as if it is the position of the church, when anyone reading it would not have that impression. The tone of this article suggests an even-handed view while leaving out the bulk of the evidence which actually breaks away from the impression with which you are left after reading it. This is not the way to discredit Mormonism–anyone who actually reads the background material is going to feel betrayed by the original article and sympathize with the Mormons.

  • jeanbodie

    Did Jesus Christ pull a fast one? Yes.
    Did Mohammed pull a fast one? Yes.
    Did Moses pull a fast one? Yes
    Did John Paul pull a fast one? Yes.
    Tolerate it buddy because it is true?

  • Chris

    If you read the references/links from the article, that theory is not the position of the Mormon church. You are falling for the author’s phony narrative hook, line, and sinker. I respect anyone who comes to the conclusion that they do not believe Joseph Smith and the his translations, but for as long as this kind of phony journalism to discredit it circulates, Mormons, who both know better and will have a natural desire to look up the source facts, will be both unconvinced and feel attacked and oppressed.

  • cmitc01

    We have the facsimiles and they’re incorrect translations. There’s no debate about this. The argument that these translations would make more sense if we had more of his translation work to look at is simply bogus and not the type of argument that Mormons I know would accept in any other context.

    Pointing to more ambiguity and unknowns in the history as good reasons for retaining faith in the BoA narrative is only going to keep the die-hard believers in place. Those on the fence or already out won’t benefit from this specious reasoning.

  • cmitc01

    I’ve read the article and once again the church does a phenomenal job of not actually telling us where it stands institutionally. (Apart from the standard read and pray bit) If I’ve missed it though please tell me, what is the official stance here? Seems to be: hold on to the faith and site the ambiguity in defense.

  • JohnH2

    I think what this article really missed in terms of dealing fairly with the subject is the consideration of this statement:
    “noting the consistency between the Book of Abraham and other sources of knowledge about the ancient world”

    Which is really the most important part in determining whether Joseph Smith was translating something real or not, regardless of whether the real thing was the papyrus he had or we have or whether the papyrus was a focus for translating something we don’t have at all. Without dealing with whether or not the Book of Abraham is an ancient text or not then any discussion of translation is unhinged from reality.

    There are quite a few details in the Book of Abraham which are found in ancient texts which were not at all available to Joseph Smith. They demand explanation and are in greater number than saying it was a lucky guess can reasonably cover. Saying that Joseph Smith pulled a fast one without having dealt with the details and cosmology found in the Book of Abraham is to pull a fast one on us.

  • jo

    Can you give SPECIFIC “details which are found in ancient texts that weren’t available to Joseph Smith”, specifically? Which details, and which ancient texts, please. Can’t make a blanket statement without backing it up. And the Bible was available, so it can’t come from there. Please, convince me with something other than just faith. I will be shocked if you can counter with any definitive proof. That’s DEFINITIVE proof. Go….

  • jo

    Wow, twisting and turning everything, per the Mormon way (I was a 30 year Mormon). How about archeological proof of the Nephites? Mormons dance around that too. It’s a fraud, pure and simple. I wanted desperately to believe, but the more I HONESTLY investigated the proven historical facts about Joseph Smith, the more I realized wwhat he really was. One of the world’s greatest liars.