Author’s note: I realize this article could be taken as controversial to some and off-putting to members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. It is not my intent to offend Mormons, but as to the subject of this article, I do openly call into question the veracity of the work of Joseph Smith. All historians familiar with the source material herein discussed share the same overt skepticism. In this article I do not wish to delve into modern religion or faith but simply to provide my own brief critical analysis of the Joseph Smith Papyri and specifically that papyrus which Smith pronounced to be “The Book of Abraham.”
In July 1835 one Michael Chandler arrived in Kirtland, Ohio with four Egyptian mummies and a collection of Egyptian papyri. At this point in time Joseph Smith, founder of the Mormon church, was living in Kirtland. Around five years earlier Smith had completed his Book of Mormon for his nascent religion, and in constructing the Book of Mormon he is said to have interpreted golden plates containing an obscure language he referred to as “Reformed Egyptian.” It is not surprising, then, that Smith should take an immediate interest in Chandler’s small but valuable collection.
Within a month Smith and members of his church had rounded up the funds and purchased Chandler’s collection for the sum of $2400 (Ritner 2013: 1). Soon thereafter Smith recruited several church members as “scribes” and set about examining the papyri. Smith is said to have quickly recognized the biblical nature of some of the papyri, including one he regarded as “The Book of Abraham”. This papyrus (designated P. Joseph Smith 1) is the focus of my article.
For the record, however, the Joseph Smith Papyri included a Book of Breathing (also known as a Breathing Permit), several fragments from different Books of the Dead, and several more that were eventually lost after the collection was split up. It is not known for certain what became of the lost fragments of papyri but they are thought to have been destroyed in the Great Chicago Fire in 1871 (Marquardt 2013: 65-66). It’s a pity they were lost because one text was an interesting papyrus known in modern scholarship as a hypocephalus:
This amuletic device, usually made of papyrus and plaster, originated in the Late Period (664-332 BCE) of ancient Egypt and contains Spell 162 from the Book of the Dead, a spell providing heat and light (thus, life) to the deceased (Taylor 2010: 61, 130). It was placed under the heads of mummies.
Joseph Smith’s “Translations”
As mentioned, I’m going to narrow my focus to the text Smith named “The Book of Abraham.” For a more comprehensive treatment of the full set of papyri, there are numerous modern sources but I would recommend Robert Ritner’s The Joseph Smith Egyptian Papyri: A Complete Edition (Signature Books, 2013). Ritner, a prominent Egyptologist with the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago, has exhaustively researched these papyri and their backstory.
Smith interpreted the papyri in a similar fashion to his Book of Mormon with its mysterious golden plates written in “Reformed Egyptian.” The main difference here is, while no evidence exists for the golden plates, most of the papyri in question are still extant and plenty of people, from professionals to laymen, have examined them. Smith had his scribes at the ready while he examined the papyri and “dictated” the contents of their ancient writing. The manuscripts which record his interpretations are still in the archives of the LDS, and the church men who acted as scribes are named in the manuscripts.
So at least we have a fairly detailed written account of how Smith approached the matter, from the hands of his own brethren. These records include an “Egyptian Alphabet” which Smith devised to show how he “translated” the papyri. That is to his credit, I suppose. Always show your work, after all.
But it should be pointed out that Egyptian hieroglyphs had been deciphered by the Frenchman Jean François Champollion in 1822, only thirteen years before Smith conducted his “translations.” As a matter of fact, news of Champollion’s achievement did not widely reach the United States until the early 1840s. By this time Smith was publishing his “translations” in Mormon literature.
In other words, there was no one yet in the Western Hemisphere who could realistically understand or decipher ancient Egyptian writing (which further includes the more cursive hieratic script seen throughout the Smith papyri). Presumably, as with the mysterious golden plates in 1830, Smith was receiving divine inspiration to be able to interpret the papyri.
His “Egyptian Alphabet” reveals that Smith believed each Egyptian character could bear numerous levels of meaning, which he called degrees. As an example, the character he took to have the sound “Tota toues-Zip Zi” could be interpreted in this way (Marquardt 2013: 34; spelling mistakes from manuscript preserved):
- 1st Degree: “The land of Egypt”
- 2nd Degree: “The land which was discovered under water by a woman”
- 3rd Degree: “The woman sought to settle her sons in that land. She being the daughter of Ham”
- 4th Degree: “The land of Egypt discovered by a woman who afterwards sett[l]ed her sons in it”
- 5th Degree: “The land of Egypt which was first discovered by a woman <whter [while?] under water>, and afterward settled by her sons she being a daughter of Ham”
Some of the papyri, including that called “The Book of Abraham,” contained vignettes (depictions or pictures) which Smith had produced as woodcuts for inclusion in his publication.
Smith “deduced” that the papyrus we designate as P. Joseph Smith 1 was “The Book of Abraham” and was written in the very hand by that biblical patriarch. Here is the actual papyrus:
According to Smith’s “translations” this was a book in which Abraham related his story of escaping human sacrifice in Ur of the Chaldeans and ended up in Egypt, where he became the keeper of ancient archives stretching back to the dawn of time. Here is how Smith published the opening to “The Book of Abraham” (1:2; ibid):
…having been myself a follower of righteousness, desiring also to be one who possessed great knowledge, and to be a greater follower of righteousness, and to possess greater knowledge, and to be a father of many nations, a prince of peace, and desiring to receive instructions, and to keep the commandments of God, I [Abraham] became a rightful heir, a High Priest, holding the right belonging to the fathers.
This was published in 1842 in a Mormon newsletter called Times and Seasons. As mentioned, woodcuts were also published which were adapted from actual vignettes which appeared in the papyri. This is the illustration published with “The Book of Abraham:”
This is the scene which is supposed to show the attempted human sacrifice of Abraham in Ur of the Chaldeans. Smith “translated” the vignette to mean that the Chaldean priests practiced Egyptian customs and worshiped Egyptian deities. Note the numbers within the illustration. Based on Smith’s “translations” the objects so numbered are thus identified (adapted from Times and Seasons, March 1842, Vol III, No. 9):
- The Angel of the Lord
- Abraham, fastened upon an Altar.
- The Idolatrous Priest of Elkenah attempting to offer up Abraham as a sacrifice.
- The Altar for sacrifice, by the Idolatrous Priests, standing before the Gods of Elkenah, Libnah, Mahmachrah, Korash, and Pharaoh.
- The Idolatrous God of Ekenah.
- The Idolatrous God of Libnah.
- The Idolatrous God of Mahmachrah.
- The Idolatrous God of Korash.
- The Idolatrous God of Pharaoh.
- Abraham in Egypt.
- Designed to represent the pillars of Heaven, as understood by the Egyptians.
- Raukeeyang, signifying expanse, or the firmament, over our heads, but in this case, in relation to this subject, the Egyptians meant it to signify Shamau, to be high, or the heavens: answering to the Hebrew word, Shaumahyeem.
Smith fancied himself a linguist and professed to be able to translate a number of ancient tongues, even though he had no formal education in them. “The Book of Abraham” is probably his most fanciful example of such work.
In October 1880 “The Book of Abraham,” along with other literature created by Joseph Smith, was canonized by LDS Church members as official scripture (ibid 61).
Eventually there was sought academic opinion on Smith’s “translations,” beginning around 1859. Smith had been dead for fifteen years by then, and Champollion had translated hieroglyphs almost forty years earlier. So by this point in time, many scholars were starting to become adept at ancient Egyptian writing and could offer a reliable, academic assessment of the Joseph Smith Papyri.
In 1912 a collection of recognized scholars including A.H. Sayce, W.M.F. Petrie, J.H. Breasted, and A.C. Mace, reviewed the “translations” and uniformly dismissed their credibility (with some measure of derision). Understandably this didn’t sit well with a lot of Mormon members, who could not assault the academic merits of the Egyptologists’ assessments so decided instead to try to attack the character of the field of Egyptology (Ritner 2013: 4-5). This is a typical fringe ploy, or in this case the ploy of a church whose tenet is being questioned, and it never passes muster. If one’s counterargument cannot address and challenge the merits of an academic position, the counterargument has no legs to stand on in the first place.
Looking again at “The Book of Abraham,” a proper academic assessment reveals it to be an ancient Egyptian funerary text called the Book of Breathing (also called the Breathing Permit). The earliest appearance of this funerary text is the Ptolemaic Period (332-30 BCE), when the Macedonian successors of Alexander the Great ruled Egypt. Based on textual analysis and the tracing of the family line of this papyrus’s owner, the Book of Breathing which Smith called “The Book of Abraham” can be dated to the first half of the second century BCE (Coenen 2013: 77).
This is obviously a very long time after the patriarch Abraham is supposed to have lived (and is beside the fact that no extrabiblical evidence exists for the patriarch, but that’s another matter). This Book of Breathing actually belonged to a Theban priest named Hor (the Greek derivation would be Horus, so this priest was named after the great falcon deity, as many Egyptian men were down through time).
It is perhaps useful to explain that by the mid-Ptolemaic Period, the Book of Breathing was beginning to replace the Book of the Dead in many burials, although examples of the latter are still known down to the onset of the Roman period in Egypt. Books of Breathing absorbed some of the content and purposes of earlier funerary texts such as the Book of the Dead. Their main purpose was to preserve the importance of breathing to the deceased, to prolong the existence of the name, and to prevent the eternal “second death” that all ascended souls feared (Hornung 1999: 24).
Academic analyses of the Joseph Smith Papyri has gone on until the present, although understandably access to them is highly restricted. A lot of scholars who’ve attempted to analyze the papyri have had to make due with photographs and the analyses and translations of earlier scholars.
Along the way scholars have noticed that Smith and his scribes back in the 1830s affixed the fragile papyri to stiff sheets of paper to stabilize them, and in many cases small fragments were incorrectly fitted into lacunae (holes in the papyri). It’s been further noted that Smith seems to have invented some characters in the ancient texts and “filled in the blanks” according, evidently, to his imagination. For example, above I posted the image which supposedly shows Abraham tied to an altar while a Chaldean priest attempts to sacrifice him. Here is a close-up of the actual state and nature of that vignette in the Book of Breathing of the priest Hor:
As is known from a plethora of other, similar funerary papyri, this is a depiction of the mummification of the underworld god Osiris (or the papyrus owner as Osiris). The figure on the bed is a deceased individual undergoing mummification. The damaged standing figure is not a priest performing human sacrifice but is the jackal-headed god Anubis; he does not clutch a knife. The bird-figure above the head of the deceased person is not the “Angel of the Lord” but is the deceased person’s ba, or soul, waiting to rejoin the body. And the four figures below the funerary couch are not deities called Libnah, Mahmachrah, Korash, and Pharao, but are the canopic jars into which the deceased’s mummified internal organs will be placed. This is all Egyptology 101. Compare the fragmented vignette above to the complete image below, from another funerary text:
This is the actual content and nature of “The Book of Abraham.” Not surprisingly it has nothing to do with biblical lore. It is strictly traditional ancient Egyptian funerary material.
Also, although Smith proclaimed that this text spoke of Chaldean priests of Ur performing Egyptian rituals, there is no evidence of Egyptian cults from the Mesopotamian city of Ur (Woods 2013: 89-91). This, too, was an invention on Smith’s part, but no doubt allowed him to explain why documents found in Egypt should “relate” such information.
The academic assessment takes into account the fact that no one in the United States in Smith’s time could read or understand hieroglyphs, and a careful academic analysis cannot accept “divine inspiration” as an explanation. While his own church members of the time fervently believed in his “translations,” Smith’s own “Egyptian Alphabet” shows he actually had no knowledge of the grammar or vocabulary of that ancient language. The words and interpretations (including the five-part degrees for vocabulary) do not correspond to any reality of the ancient Egyptian language.
The Papyri After Smith
Joseph Smith died violently in June 1844 and the mummies and papyri passed to his mother, Lucy M. Smith. Lucy Smith died in May 1856, and within a couple of weeks this collection was sold to a man named Abel Combs (Marquardt 2013: 61). After that the collection was sold and resold again, and was eventually split up. In the 1940s some of the papyri ended up in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. As mentioned earlier, some of the other papyri. including the hypocephalus, is believed to have ended up in a small collection that was destroyed in the Great Chicago Fire.
In the mid-1960s the Metropolitan Museum, as museums occasionally do, began to sell pieces of its collection to raise money. The surviving Joseph Smith Papyri actually made their way in November 1967 back to the possession of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
As all big religions do, the Mormons had their share of problems from within throughout the years, and a breakaway sect that eventually called itself the Community of Christ, in Missouri, subsequently repudiated Smith’s “translations” of the papyri and does not regard them as canonical. The LDS Church continues to regard them as canonical but since reacquisition in 1967 most LDS members appear no longer to recognize them as a literal translation of an ancient text (ibid 67). However, that Smith received “divine inspiration” to discern the overall meaning of the papyri seems still to be the case.
As an aside, while doing research for this article I was curious to see what modern Mormons might have to say about the papyri. Online I found a Mormon message board that had several discussions about the papyri, including “The Book of Abraham,” so on some level this material is still relevant to LDS members.
I am no atheist and was raised in a conservative Roman Catholic household. I am no stranger to the requirements devout people must have to believe or accept the tenets of their faith, and how strange some of the background to a faith may be. But that’s just it: it’s a matter of faith. Do I believe Smith’s translations or his interpretations of these ancient papyri? Of course not, but I recognize that faith is not science.
I welcome comments from believers and non-believers alike, definitely including Mormons. I’ve known very few Mormons in my life and have never talked to them about these papyri, so I’d be curious to hear what active LDS members have to say.
Hornung, Erik. The Ancient Egyptian Books of the Afterlife. 1999.
Ritner, Robert K., ed. The Joseph Smith Egyptian Papyri: A Complete Edition. 2013.
Taylor, John H. Journey Through the Afterlife: Ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead. 2010.