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The Book of Abraham

After decades in the church, a mission, and religion courses on this very subject, one day I discovered the actual history of the Book of Abraham. Why wasn’t I ever taught the basic history of this book of scripture in church? In seminary? On my mission? In my Pearl of Great Price course at BYU? While the church hasn’t completely hidden the embarrassing facts about the papyri, it certainly hasn’t made much of an effort to be open about them or educate its members on them.

Basic history of the source material

In 1835, a traveling showman brought an Egyptian mummy exhibit to Kirtland Ohio. When Joseph Smith looked at the papyri scrolls, he claimed they were written by Abraham’s own hand. Several members pooled their money and purchased the papyri and mummies. Seven years later, Joseph presented the Book of Abaraham, including the three Facsimiles and their supposed meaning. In 1880, the LDS authorities unanimously voted to canonize the book as scripture. This canonization came 9 years after the papyri were supposedly destroyed in the Great Chicago Fire and any possibility of confirming Joseph’s translation gone with them.

Of course, now we have the Rosetta Stone as well as vastly increased resources, communication, and material to understand hieroglyphics and other Egyptian figures and texts. Egyptologists can study the Facsimiles in LDS canonized scripture. Even better, some of the original papyri had actually survived the fire and were discovered in 1966. The papyri were given as a gift to the church in 1967. It was easy to confirm that they were indeed the original papyri and the church couldn’t deny it.

What unbiased (not Mormon, not anti-Mormon) scholars have concluded

So what have Egyptologists and scholars made of the Facsimiles and the actual papyri?

“… I have examined the illustrations given in the ‘Pearl of Great Price.’ In the first place, they are copies (very badly done) of well known Egyptian subjects of which I have dozens of examples. Secondly, they are all many centuries later than Abraham… the attempts to guess a meaning for them, in the professed explanations, are too absurd to be noticed. It may be safely said that there is not one single word that is true in these explanations… None but the ignorant could possibly be imposed on by such ludicrous blunders …” (Dr. W. M. Flinders Petrie, London University)

“… the author knew neither the Egyptian language nor the meaning of the most commonplace Egyptian figures… it may be remarked that his explanations from a scientific and scholarly standpoint are absurd… the explanatory notes to his fac-similes cannot be taken seriously by any scholar, as they seem to be undoubtedly the work of pure imagination …” (Rev. Prof. C. A. B. Mercer, Ph. D., Custodian Hibbard Collection, Egyptian Reproductions)

“… What he calls the ‘Book of Abraham’ is a funeral Egyptian text, probably not older than the Greek ages… Jos. Smith certainly never got a Divine revelation in the meaning of the ancient Egyptian Script, and that he never deciphered hieroglyphic texts at all …” (Dr. Friedrich von Bissing, Prof. of Egyptology, Univ. of Munich)

There is no connection whatsoever between the content and the text in the Book of Abraham. The papyri were clearly identified as regular funerary documents of ancient Egypt, more specifically from the Book of Breathings. Additionally, it was discovered that Smith had commissioned an artist to fill in details for missing pieces in the Facsimiles, speculating as to what would have been in the missing sections. The message from Egyptologists is quite clear: the text of the Book of Abraham, the portion of the Facsimiles that Joseph Smith had filled in, and the identification of the various subjects and meaning of the Facsimiles themselves were all completely false.

To make matters worse for the church, the papyri were dated to be no older than 100 BC, almost 2,000 years after the time of Abraham. So it could not possibly have been written by Abraham’s own hand as Joseph and the church have contended.

How has the church handled the uncovering of these embarrassing discoveries?

There has been no official response. When an entire book of canonized scripture was discovered to be a hoax, the church remained silent. It did assign numerous church historians and LDS scholars to study the papyri. They came up with a number of flimsy excuses, but nothing that holds any water. Two years ago, the official Church News published an article detailing how apologists could defend the Book of Abraham to critics, drawing heavily on LDS Egyptologist John Gee:

“The Book of Abraham is not central to the restored gospel of Christ. To illustrate, he said that of all the scriptural citations in general conference since 1942, the Book of Abraham has been cited less than 1 percent of the time. Most of those citations are the seven verses in Abraham 3:22-29, which tell of the pre-mortal existence… The Church does not stand or fall on the Book of Abraham.”

It sounds like the church realizes it has no ground to stand on. It’s attempting to downplay the importance of the Book of Abraham. But how important is it really? It is canonized scripture. It is Joseph Smith’s second largest “translation” project behind the Book of Mormon. It confirmed the controversial doctrine of polygamy. It introduced the first and only scriptural basis for denying priesthood and eternal marriages to black people. It contains the only scriptural reference of God telling someone to lie. It contains doctrine about plurality of gods, the pre-existence, the creation, fore-ordination, and the second estate of man. Finally, it has a very large bearing on the temple endowment ceremony.

Doesn’t that cast a huge shadow of doubt on Joseph Smith as well as the church leaders who canonized it in 1880? Doesn’t that refute or at least put in doubt significant doctrines of the church? Shouldn’t the church, when it learned that Joseph Smith’s identification and translation of the papyri were faked, have admitted the duplicity and removed the book from canonized scripture?

While I do agree with John Gee that the church does not stand or fall on the Book of Abraham, it is definitely food for thought.

For a fantastic overview of the history, support and criticism of the BOA, go here.

Next Step: The First Vision

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