The Book of Abraham Translation

James Walker

Joseph Smith Jr., founder of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS or Mormon) brought forth three documents during his lifetime that are considered scripture by the Mormon Church today: the Book of Mormon, Doctrine and Covenants, and the Pearl of Great Price.

The latter contains a five chapter document called the Book of Abraham.

Joseph Smith claimed to have translated the Book of Abraham from some Egyptian papyri purchased in 1835 along with several mummies from an exhibit which had them on display in Kirtland, Ohio.

The heading above chapter one of the Book of Abraham reads: "A Translation of some ancient Records, that have fallen into our hands from the catacombs of Egypt. The writings of Abraham while he was in Egypt, called the Book of Abraham, written by his own hand, upon papyrus."

Also printed with the Book of Abraham are three facsimiles (numbered one through three) which are reported to have been taken "from the book of Abraham" with a referenced "explanation" of what the symbols mean provided by Joseph Smith.

Joseph Smith was relatively safe in providing a "translation" of these Egyptian papers in that no one could translate Egyptian in 1835 when he "commenced the translation" of them. (Joseph Smith, History of the Church, Vol. 2, p. 236).

But even as Joseph Smith worked on the Book of Abraham, tentative advances in the field of Egyptian language studies were being steadily made in Europe based on the Rosetta Stone discovered in 1799.

The pioneer work with the stone by Jean Francois Champollion and others was "confirmed by the discovery of another stele in 1866, with the text of the `Decree of Canopus'" (New International Dictionary of Biblical Archaeology, p.392). Egyptian is no longer a lost language! Hieroglyphics, hieratic, and demotic scripts can and are translated today in the world's major universities.

If Joseph Smith, an American of modest education with no possible knowledge of Egyptian, could recognize the handwriting of Abraham, identify its significance, and properly translate it into English, the non-Mormon world would have to concede that Smith exhibited supernatural powers.

If however, Joseph Smith misidentified the documents and mistranslated them, Mormons may want to re-evaluate Smith's abilities as a translator and the Book of Abraham's status as scripture.

Joseph Smith's Translation Graded

Joseph Smith's translation has been checked by world renown Egyptologists and it has been proven to be bogus. As early as 1861, claims were published declaring that Smith's translation was "entirely incorrect," (A Journey to Great Salt Lake City Vol.2, p.539, cited in Joseph Smith, Jr. As A Translator, p.19, [Modern Microfilm Reprint]).

Then in 1912 the Episcopal Bishop of Utah, Rev. F.S. Spalding, sent copies of the Book of Abraham facsimiles to, "a number of the foremost of present day Egyptian scholars, eight in all," including professors from German, British and US universities (B.H. Roberts, Comprehensive History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Vol. 2. p. 138).

Spalding's work culminated in a powerful book, Joseph Smith, Jr., As A Translator, and spawned banner headlines in the Dec. 29th 1912 New York Times denouncing the Book of Abraham as a hoax.

Mormon defender, Dr. Hugh Nibley, writes:

"For the benefit of those readers who may have forgotten some of the details of 1912, it may be recalled that Bishop Spalding asked eight Egyptologists what they thought of Joseph Smith's interpretation of the Facsimiles in the Pearl of Great Price. You can imagine what their answers were" (Improvement Era, January, 1968, p. 18).

Even Nibley's most pessimistic reader may not have fully imagined the scorn of Spalding's eight scholars. Dr A. H. Sayce of Oxford, England wrote:

"It is difficult to deal seriously with Joseph Smith's impudent fraud. His fac-simile from the Book of Abraham No. 2 is an ordinary hypocephalus, but the hieroglyphics upon it have been copied so ignorantly that hardly one of them is correct".

"Number 3 is a representation of the Goddess Maat leading the Pharaoh before Osiris, behind whom stand the Goddess Isis. Smith has turned the Goddess into a king and Osiris into Abraham" (F.S. Spalding, Joseph Smith, Jr., As A Translator, p.23).

Dr. W.M. Flinders Petrie of London University wrote, "It may be safely said that there is not one single word that is true in these explanations" (ibid p.24).

Dr. Arthur C. Mace, Assistant Curator for the Department of Egyptian Art of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York explained, "The `Book of Abraham,' it is hardly necessary to say, is a pure fabrication."

"Joseph Smith's interpretation of these cuts is a farrago of nonsense from beginning to end. Egyptian characters can now be read almost as easily as Greek, and five minutes' study in an Egyptian gallery of any museum should be enough to convince any educated man of the clumsiness of the imposture" (ibid p. 27).

While it may have taken more than five minutes of study, even many faithful Mormons have been shaken when faced with the evidence.

One Mormon, Naomi Woodbury, wrote a touching letter to the editor published in the August, 1968 issue of the independent Mormon periodical, Dialogue: a Journal of Mormon Thought.

She said, "I myself studied Egyptian hieroglyphics at UCLA several years ago in the hope of resolving some of the problems connected with the `Book of Abraham' in Joseph Smith's favor. Unfortunately, as soon as I had learned the language well enough to use a dictionary I was forced to conclude that Joseph Smith's translation was mistaken, however sincere it might have been. It belongs to a kind of literature which is alien to Christianity and to our Church" (p. 8).

Joseph Smith's Papyri Found

Prior to 1967, the science of Egyptology expose much of Joseph Smith's abilities as a translator, but many questions were left unanswered. Joseph Smith's captioned "explanations" of the three facsimiles were known to be bogus but the direct connection between facsimiles and the text of the Book of Abraham itself was unknown. Also, the quality of the reproductions of the facsimiles printed in the Book of Abraham was too poor to read much of the accompanying text.

Egyptologist Richard A. Parker writes:

"The ancient Egyptian language can be called completely decipherable. The pictures you sent me [of the Book of Abraham facsimiles] are based upon Egyptian originals but are poor or distorted copies. Many of the hieroglyphs are recognizable but so many others have been so poorly copied that the illustrations cannot be read. (b) The explanations are COMPLETELY WRONG insofar as any interpretation of the Egyptian original is concerned" (letter from Richard A. Parker, Dept. of Egyptology at Brown University to Marvin Cowan dated March 22, 1966 The Case Against Mormonism, Vol. 2, p. 133).

All doubts were laid aside when the original papyri were rediscovered in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and presented to the Mormon Church by Dr. Aziz S. Atiya (Improvement Era, January, 1968 p 12).

It has been established without question that the actual characters that Joseph Smith used in translating the Book of Abraham were contained in Fragment XI of the collection.

Complete translations of the Joseph Smith papyri have been made by recognized Egyptologists. Their unbiased, expert translations prove that Joseph Smith's "translation" was a hoax.

It has been proven that the Book of Abraham collection is nothing more than a common collection of Egyptian funeral documents that are based on pagan myths related to Egyptian idolatry (see: Dialogue: a Journal of Mormon Thought, Autumn 1968 pp. 109-34).

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