Fall of the Book of Abraham
The Book of Abraham was supposed to have been written on papyrus by Abraham about 4,000 years ago. According to Mormon writers, this same papyrus fell into Joseph Smith's hands in 1835. He translated the papyrus and published it under the title "The Book of Abraham." The Book of Abraham was accepted by the Mormon church as Scripture and is now published as part of the Pearl of Great Price—one of the four standard works of the church.
If the papyrus were really written by Abraham, as the Mormons claim, its discovery was probably one of the most important finds in the history of the world. To say that the papyrus would be worth a million dollars would be greatly underestimating its value, for it would be older than any portion of the Bible. Dr. Sidney B. Sperry, of Brigham Young University, observed: "If a manuscript were to be found in the sands of Egypt written in Egyptian characters with the title of 'The Book of Abraham,' it would cause a sensation in the scholarly world. Our people do profess to have such a scripture containing but five chapters which was written by Abraham . . ." (Ancient Records Testify in Papyrus and Stone, 1938, p. 39).
On page 83 of the same book, Dr. Sperry boasts:
... the Book of Abraham will some day be reckoned as one of the most remarkable documents in existence ... the author or editors of the book we call Genesis lived after the events recorded therein took place. Our text of Genesis can therefore not be dated earlier than the latest event mentioned by it. It is evident that the writings of Abraham ... must of necessity be older than the original text of Genesis. I say this in passing because some of our brethren have exhibited surprise when told that the text of the Book of Abraham is older than that of Genesis.
From this it is plain to see that if the "Book of Abraham" is an authentic record of Abraham its value to the world could not be estimated. If, on the other hand, the papyrus was not really
written by Abraham, then Joseph Smith was guilty of misrepresentation, and serious doubt is cast upon the Book of Mormon and other writings which he claimed were Scripture.
The Papyri Rediscovered
For many years Joseph Smith's collection of papyri was lost, but on November 27, 1967, the Mormon-owned Deseret News announced:
NEW YORK—A collection of pa[p]yrus manuscripts, long believed to have been destroyed in the Chicago fire of 1871, was presented to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints here Monday by the Metropolitan Museum of Art....
Included in the papyri is a manuscript identified as the original document from which Joseph Smith had copied the drawing which he called "Facsimile No. 1" and published with the Book of Abraham.
The importance of this find cannot be overemphasized, for now Joseph Smith's ability as a translator of ancient Egyptian writing can be put to an absolute test.
In February, 1968, the Improvement Era, a Mormon publication, announced that there was an "unprecedented interest generated throughout the Church by the recovery of 11 pieces of papyrus that were once the property of the Prophet Joseph Smith." Many members of the church felt that Joseph Smith's work had been vindicated. Dr. Sidney B. Sperry, however, warned his people to be cautious (see Mormonism—Shadow or Reality? p. 294). Dr. Hugh Nibley, who is supposed to be the Mormon church's top authority on the Egyptian language, warned his people that there was trouble ahead. On December 1, 1967, the Daily Universe, published at Brigham Young University, reported these statements by Dr. Nibley:
"The papyri scripts given to the Church do not prove the Book of Abraham is true," Dr. Hugh Nibley said ... Wednesday night. "LDS scholars are caught flat footed by this discovery," he went on to say.
According to Dr. Nibley, Mormon scholars should have been doing added research on the Pearl of Great Price years ago. Non-Mormon scholars will bring in questions regarding the manuscripts which will be hard to answer because of lack of scholarly knowledge on the subject.... Dr. Nibley said worldly discoveries are going to "bury the Church in criticism" if members of the Church don't take it upon themselves to become a people of learning.
On another occasion Dr. Nibley discussed the papyri and
commented that "in the moment of truth the Mormons have to face the world unprepared, after having been given a hundred years' fair warning" (BYU Studies, Winter 1968, pp. 171-72).
Although these are strange words to be coming from the man whom Mormon leaders have chosen to defend the "Book of Abraham," they are certainly the truth.
In order to understand the problems involved it is necessary to give a brief history of the papyri. Joseph Smith's History of the Church contains the following account of the discovery of the papyri: "The records were obtained from one of the catacombs of Egypt, ... by the celebrated French traveler, Antonio Sebolo, ... he made a will of the whole, to Mr. Michael H. Chandler.... On opening the coffins, he discovered ... two rolls of papyrus ..." (History of the Church, vol. 2, pp. 348-49).
After receiving some mummies along with the papyri, Mr. Chandler traveled about exhibiting them. He arrived in Kirtland, Ohio in 1835. Joseph Smith became interested in the papyri, and the Mormons purchased both the papyri and the mummies from Mr. Chandler. Joseph Smith examined the papyri and declared that they were the writings of Abraham and Joseph of Egypt: "... I commenced the translation of some of the characters or hieroglyphics, and much to our joy found that one of the rolls contained the writings of Abraham, another the writings of Joseph of Egypt, etc...." (History of the Church, vol. 2, p. 236).
In 1842 Joseph Smith published his translation of the "Book of Abraham" in the Times and Seasons. Three drawings from the "Book of Abraham" were included in this work.
During the time that Joseph Smith possessed the papyri many people were allowed to see them. Josiah Quincy, who met with Joseph Smith at Nauvoo, gave the following account of his visit:
The prophet referred to his miraculous gift of understanding all languages.... "And now come with me," said the prophet, "and I will show you the curiosities." ... "These are mummies," said the exhibitor. "I want you to look at that little runt of a fellow over there. He was a great man in his day. Why, that was Pharaoh Necho, King of Egypt!" Some parchments inscribed with hieroglyphics were then offered us.... "That is the handwriting of Abraham, the Father of the Faithful," said the prophet. "This is the autograph of Moses, and these lines were written by his brother Aaron. Here we have the earliest account of the Creation, from which Moses composed the First Book of Genesis." ... We were further assured that the prophet was the only mortal who could translate these mysterious writings, and that his power
was given by direct inspiration (Among the Mormons, pp. 136-37).
In Joseph Smith's time the science of Egyptology was in its infancy. Therefore, Joseph Smith's work as a translator could not be adequately tested. The knowledge of hieroglyphic, hieratic and demotic Egyptian writing had been lost many centuries before, and it was not until the beginning of the nineteenth century that there appeared much hope of deciphering these strange writings. Just before the turn of the century (1799) some French soldiers found a stone with Greek, demotic and hieroglyphic writings upon it. This is known as the Rosetta Stone. Since the Greek writing recorded the same information as the Egyptian, it was used as a key to decipher Egyptian writings.
At the time Joseph Smith received the papyri there were only a very limited number of scholars who understood anything about the Egyptian language. In his book, An Egyptian Hieroglyphic Dictionary (vol. 1, p. xvii), E. A. Wallis Budge stated: "In 1837,... Birch ... decided to attempt to publish a 'Hieroglyphical Dictionary.' ... publishers were not eager to spend their money on a dictionary of a language of which scarcely a dozen people in the whole world had any real knowledge."
From this information it is plain to see that there was little chance of Joseph Smith's work coming into conflict with the science of Egyptology during his lifetime. Joseph Smith was murdered in 1844, and within a few years the Mormons came out West. Smith's mother as well as his widow refused to go West, and therefore the Mormon church lost control of the collection of papyri. Nevertheless, Joseph Smith had included three drawings in his "Book of Abraham, " and also gave an interpretation of much of the material which appeared in these drawings.
By the year 1860 the science of Egyptology had advanced to the point where some people felt that it could be used to test Joseph Smith's ability as a translator. The printed facsimiles from the "Book of Abraham" were submitted to Egyptologist M. Theodule Deveria. Deveria not only accused Joseph Smith of making a false translation but also of altering the scenes shown in the facsimiles. Deveria's work on the "Book of Abraham" seemed to have little influence on the Mormons.
In 1912, however, another attack was made on the "Book of Abraham." Mormon historian B. H. Roberts explained: "In 1912 a wide-spread interest was awakened in the Book of Abraham by the publication of a brochure, by Rt. Rev. F. S. Spalding.... The bishop submitted the facsimiles of some of the parchment pages
from which the Book of Abraham had been translated ... to a number of the foremost of present day Egyptian scholars" (A Comprehensive History of the Church, vol. 2, p. 138).
On page 23 of Joseph Smith, Jr., As A Translator, F. S. Spalding reproduced a letter from Dr. A. H. Sayce of Oxford, England, which said: "It is difficult to deal seriously with Joseph Smith's impudent fraud.... Smith has turned the Goddess into a king and Osiris into Abraham."
James H. Breasted, Ph.D., Haskell Oriental Museum, University of Chicago, stated: "... these three facsimiles of Egyptian documents in the 'Pearl of Great Price' depict the most common objects in the mortuary religion of Egypt. Joseph Smith's interpretations of them as part of a unique revelation through Abraham, therefore, very clearly demonstrates that he was totally unacquainted with the significance of these documents and absolutely ignorant of the simplest facts of Egyptian writing and civilization" (pp. 26-27).
The other Egyptologists whom Spalding contacted rendered a similar verdict—i.e., the "Book of Abraham" was a work of Joseph Smith's imagination and had no basis in fact. The Mormon leaders did not know how to deal with Spalding's pamphlet. Mormon historian B. H. Roberts admitted that there "were no Egyptian scholars in the church of the Latter-day Saints who could make an effective answer to the conclusions of the eight scholars who in various ways pronounced against the correctness of Joseph Smith's translation..." (A Comprehensive History of the Church, vol. 2, p. 139).
The Mormons, however, did receive help from a writer who called himself "Robert C. Webb, Ph.D." Fawn M. Brodie claimed that Robert C. Webb's real name was "J. E. Homans," and that he was "neither an Egyptologist nor a Ph.D." (No Man Knows My History, 1957, p. 175). From this it is rather obvious that the Mormon leaders were guilty of deception. Strange as it may seem, Dr. Sidney B. Sperry, of Brigham Young University, confirmed the fact that Robert C. Webb was no Ph.D.: "He wrote a wonderful book, ... under the name of Robert C. Webb, Ph.D. I regret that the brethren let him put down Robert C. Webb, Ph.D., because he was no Ph.D." (Pearl of Great Price Conference, December 10, 1960, 1964 ed., p. 9). On page 6 of the same publication, Dr. Sperry stated that Dr. Webb's "real name was, J. C. Homans."
At any rate, the Mormon church was able to survive Spalding's attack on the "Book of Abraham" with very little injury because church members felt that "Dr. Webb" had answered the critics. Writing in the Improvement Era, April 1913, N. L. Nelson
stated: "Dr. Webb has, indeed, vindicated the prophet better than he knew himself."
After the excitement over Spalding's pamphlet died down, the Mormons took little interest in the science of Egyptology. Then, in 1967, the church announced the rediscovery of the Joseph Smith Papyri and Dr. Nibley had to admit that "LDS scholars are caught flat footed by this discovery."
In Mormonism—Shadow or Reality? (pp. 302-6), we show that the circumstances surrounding the rediscovery of the Joseph Smith Papyri are very suspicious. We show, in fact, that a Mormon scholar, Walter Whipple, knew that the papyri were in the Metropolitan Museum as early as 1962, five years before the rediscovery was announced.
Another interesting development is the fact that the Mormon church has an actual piece of papyrus from Joseph Smith's collection which they suppressed for 130 years. In 1966 we printed Joseph Smith's Egyptian Alphabet and Grammar, which included a photograph of this fragment. Grant Heward identified it as an actual fragment of papyrus, and we published this fact in the Salt Lake City Messenger for April 1966. Finally, after the rediscovery of the papyri in the Metropolitan Museum was announced, the church leaders admitted that they had this fragment of papyrus. Their admission was published in the Improvement Era in February 1968, page 40-H.
Mormon writer Jay M. Todd now admits that Dr. James R. Clark, of Brigham Young University, knew about this fragment for thirty years but was told to suppress this information: "Outside of a few associates, Dr. Clark had kept the fragment a matter of confidence, under instructions from the Historian's Office, for over 30 years" (The Saga of the Book of Abraham, p. 364).
No Gift to Translate
After receiving the papyri from the Metropolitan Museum, Mormon leaders turned them over "to Dr. Hugh Nibley, scholar, linguist at Brigham Young University, ... for further research and study" (Improvement Era, February 1968, p. 13). This turned out to be a very serious mistake. To begin with, the fact that the papyri were turned over to Dr. Nibley is almost an admission that church leaders are not guided by revelation as they claim. The Mormon church is led by a man who is sustained by the people as "Prophet, Seer, and Revelator." The Book of Mormon says that a "seer" can "translate all records that are of ancient date" (Mosiah 8:13). Apostle John A. Widtsoe stated that if "records appear needing translation, the President of the Church may at any time be called, through revelation, to the special labor of
translation" (Evidences and Reconciliations, vol. 1, p. 203).
Since the church claims to have the "seer stone" and is supposed to be led by a "Prophet, Seer, and Revelator," we might expect a translation by this means. Instead, however, the papyri were sent to Dr. Nibley to be translated by "the wisdom of the world." Thus, it appears that the prophet does not have the gift to translate languages as has been previously claimed.
Since Mormon leaders did not seem to have the gift to translate the papyri themselves, they should have turned the job over to qualified Egyptologists. Instead of doing this, however, they gave the task to Dr. Hugh Nibley. Now there is little doubt that Dr. Nibley is a brilliant man and that he knows several different languages, but this did not qualify him to deal with the Egyptian language. Egyptian is very difficult and it takes many years of experience for a person to become skilled in working with it. Dr. Nibley had taken some classes in the Egyptian language, but this was not sufficient to qualify him for the job of translating the papyri. He admitted that he was not an Egyptologist in a letter to Dee Jay Nelson, dated June 27, 1967 (see Mormonism—Shadow or Reality? p. 308, for a photograph of this letter): "I don't consider myself an Egyptologist at all, and don't intend to get involved in the P.G.P. business unless I am forced into it ...."
When Dr. Nibley speaks of the "P.G.P." he is referring to the Pearl of Great Price that, of course, contains the "Book of Abraham." Even though Dr. Nibley claimed that he was not an Egyptologist and that he did not intend to get involved in the argument concerning the authenticity of the "Book of Abraham," he allowed himself to become more deeply involved defending the "Book of Abraham" than anyone else in the church. He has written articles for the Improvement Era, Brigham Young University Studies, and Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought.
Dr. Nibley began a series of articles for the Improvement Era in January, 1968. This series ran for over two years, and was finally brought to a conclusion with the issue published May, 1970. Although Dr. Nibley was supposed to unfold "the meaning of the hieroglyphics" in this series of articles, no translation of the Joseph Smith Papyri ever appeared in this series. It would appear that Dr. Nibley's main objective in this series was to blind the eyes of his fellow church members so that they could not see the real issues involved in this matter. Although he used almost 2,000 footnotes, he never did deal with the main problem.
Dr. Nibley gave this excuse for not translating the papyri in an article published in Brigham Young University Studies, (Spring 1968, p. 251): "We have often been asked during the past months
why we did not proceed with all haste to produce a translation of the papyri the moment they came into our possession. Well, for one thing others are far better equipped to do the job than we are, and some of those early expressed a willingness to undertake it. But, more important, it is doubtful whether any translation could do as much good as harm."
In the Salt Lake Tribune for November 11, 1973, we criticized Dr. Nibley for not producing a translation of the papyri. He replied that he had prepared a book which "is 800 pages long, but that is not enough to account for keeping the impatient Tanners waiting for six years. What took up all that time was having to find out about a lot of things" (Salt Lake Tribune, November 25, 1973). This book, which many people believed would answer the objections of the critics and save the "Book of Abraham," was finally published by the church's Deseret Book Company in 1975 under the title, The Message of the Joseph Smith Papyri: An Egyptian Endowment. Although the First Presidency of the church assigned Dr. Nibley to work on the papyri, they were reluctant to give his work any real official endorsement. When John L. Smith asked about Nibley's new book, Francis M. Gibbs, secretary to the First Presidency, sent him a reply in which he stated: "... the writings of Dr. Hugh Nibley concerning the papyri scrolls have been done entirely on his own responsibility and do not have the official approval and sanction of the Church" (Letter dated August 22, 1975).
Although Dr. Nibley's book is nicely printed and bound, the contents are very disappointing. Of the eleven fragments of papyrus which were discovered, ten of them contain significant Egyptian messages which can be translated. We would expect that any book about the papyri would at least have a translation of all these pieces. Dr. Nibley's book, however, only contains a translation of two fragments! Among the fragments which Dr. Nibley has not translated is the original of "Facsimile No. 1" in the "Book of Abraham." This fragment contains a number of lines of hieroglyphs which relate to the meaning of the drawing. The reason Dr. Nibley has not translated these lines seems obvious: they show that "Facsimile No. 1" is not a picture of "Abraham fastened upon an altar" as Joseph Smith proclaimed, but rather a picture of an Egyptian by the name of Hor being prepared for burial. We will have more to say about this later.
Those of us who have purchased Dr. Nibley's writings in the Improvement Era, the BYU Studies and now his new book, which sells for $14.95, have spent at least $30.00. What do we have to show for this investment? We have hundreds of pages of material with thousands of footnotes, but we have a translation
of only two of the fragments of papyrus and no answer to the main problems about the "Book of Abraham." To say the least, Dr. Nibley's book contains some very serious errors (see the Salt Lake City Messenger, April 1976). Michael Marquardt has prepared a good rebuttal entitled, The Book of Abraham Papyrus Found: An Answer to Dr. Hugh Nibley's Book 'The Message of the Joseph Smith Papyri: An Egyptian Endowment'.
Hugh Nibley's wishful thinking with regard to the relationship of Mormonism to ancient Egyptian characters was clearly demonstrated by his endorsement of a forged document. This document, purported to be a better copy of the Anthon Transcript than the one we discussed on pages 141-44 of this book, was "discovered" by Mark Hofmann. On May 3, 1980, the Mormon Church's Deseret News announced the new discovery. Dr. Nibley proclaimed that this document, which was supposed to have characters Joseph Smith copied from the gold plates of the Book of Mormon, resembled Egyptian script. In the Provo Herald, May 1, 1980, Dr. Nibley triumphantly announced: "Of course it's translatable." Unfortunately for Dr. Nibley's reputation, no translation was ever made, and in 1986, document experts declared that it was a forgery. That Dr. Nibley could see ancient Egyptian characters on a document that actually contained the doodlings of Mark Hofmann throws a cloud of doubt over all his work.
As in the case of the Joseph Smith Papyri, the Mormon Prophet Spencer W. Kimball was unable to exercise his purported gift of seership. Instead of using the "seer stone" to try to translate the characters, President Kimball examined them with a magnifying glass. Kimball could detect nothing wrong with the document, and Mark Hofmann was given $20,000 worth of trade items. In March 1984 we began to publicly question Hofmann's documents, and on Sept. 1, 1984, the church's own newspaper, Deseret News, reported: "... outspoken Mormon Church critics Jerald and Sandra Tanner suspect the document [the Salamander letter] is a forgery, they told the Deseret News." The leaders of the church, however, were oblivious to the warnings concerning the possibility of forgery and continued to buy Hofmann's documents right up until the time he murdered two people. If these leaders were really led by revelation, they could have exposed Hofmann as a fraud. This would have saved the church and its members hundreds of thousands of dollars, and two LDS members would be alive today.
At any rate, the Joseph Smith Papyri completely destroy the foundation of the "Book of Abraham." The Mormon leaders did not commission any non-Mormon Egyptologists to translate the papyri. Instead they dropped them in the lap of Hugh Nibley, who was not really qualified to make a translation. Dr. Nibley
A photograph of a document supposed to contain "Reformed Egyptian" characters copied from gold plates of the Book of Mormon. The Mormon Prophet Spencer W. Kimball examined it with a magnifying glass, and the church later obtained it for $20,000 worth of trade items. Although Hugh Nibley said it could be translated, it turned out to be a forgery.
realized he was in trouble and sought help in defending the "Book of Abraham" from a Mormon elder by the name of Dee Jay Nelson. In a letter dated June 27, 1967, he told Nelson that he could "see no reason in the world why you should not be taken into the confidence of the Brethren if this thing ever comes out into the open; in fact, you should be enormously useful to the Church ... there are parties in Salt Lake who are howling for a showdown on the P.G.P.; if they have their way we may have to get together."
On January 4, 1968, Dee Jay Nelson visited with Dr. Nibley at Brigham Young University and examined the original papyri. Dr. Nibley agreed that Nelson should translate the papyri, and be sent a note to N. Eldon Tanner, a member of the First Presidency, stating that "it would be a good idea to let Prof. Dee J. Nelson have copies" of the papyri. This was before the Mormon leaders allowed photographs of all the papyri to be published. Mr. Nelson translated the papyri but was unable to find any mention of Abraham or his religion in any portion of the documents. He found the names of many pagan gods who were worshiped by the Egyptians but nothing concerning the God of Abraham. Since Nelson's work did not support the "Book of Abraham," the Mormon Church declined to publish it, and Nelson turned it over to us for publication. Dee Jay Nelson later withdrew his membership from the church and began to make exaggerated claims concerning his importance as an Egyptologist and about ten years after completing his translation of the Joseph Smith Papyri, he claimed to have a doctor's degree from Pacific Northwestern University. In March 1980 we learned from a woman in Arizona that this school could not be located, and, therefore, asked Mr. Nelson for verification. Nelson furnished us with a diploma from the school, but after a great deal of investigation we finally learned that Pacific Northwestern University in Seattle was only a "diploma mill of the worst kind." (The reader can obtain more free information about this matter by writing to us at PO Box 1884, Salt Lake City, Utah 84110.)
Although we made a number of quotations from Nelson's work in the first edition of this book, we believe that it is unwise to continue quoting him in this edition. This is not to say that his work has no merit. On the contrary, for even Dr. Hugh Nibley said it is "a conscientious piece of work for which the Latter-day Saints owe a debt of gratitude to Mr. Dee Jay Nelson. ... This is ... a usable and reliable translation of the available papyri that once belonged to Joseph Smith" (BYU Studies, Spring 1968, p. 247). Although we generally agree with Dr. Nibley's
statement on the reliability of Nelson's translation, we believe he has dishonored himself by falling into the footsteps of "Robert C. Webb," the fake "Ph.D." who defended the Mormon Church. Our case against the "Book on Abraham" is certainly not based on any one man but stands firmly on the science of Egyptology and on the work of some of the world's greatest Egyptologists—i.e., Professor Richard Parker of Brown University and Professors Klaus Baer and John A. Wilson (now deceased) of the University of Chicago's Oriental Institute. These scholars were requested to make their translations by the editors of Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought—a publication not controlled by the LDS Church.
Source of the Book of Abraham
As we stated before, when the papyri were located many members of the Mormon church felt that Joseph Smith's work had been vindicated. We quoted Dr. Hugh Nibley, however, as stating that the papyri "do not prove the Book of Abraham is true" and that LDS scholars are "caught flat footed" by the discovery. While Dr. Nibley and a few others may have realized that the papyri could not be used to prove Joseph Smith's work true, they evidently were not aware of the devastating blow that the papyri were about to deal to the "Book of Abraham." Within six months from the time the Metropolitan Museum gave the papyri to the church, the "Book of Abraham" had been proven untrue!
The fall of the "Book of Abraham" has been brought about by the identification of the actual fragment of papyrus from which Joseph Smith "translated" the book. On page 341 of this book the reader will find a photograph of the right side of this fragment of papyrus.
The identification of this fragment as the original from which Joseph Smith translated the "Book of Abraham" has been made possible by a comparison with Joseph Smith's Egyptian Alphabet and Grammar—handwritten documents we photographically reproduced in 1966. Dr. James R. Clark, of Brigham Young University, gives this information:
... there are in existence today in the Church Historian's Office what seem to be two separate manuscripts of Joseph Smith's translations from the papyrus rolls, presumably in the hand writing of Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery... One manuscript is the Alphabet and Grammar... Within this Alphabet and Grammar there is a copy of the characters, together with their translation of Abraham 1:4-28 only. The second and separate of the two manuscripts contains none of the Alphabet and Grammar but is a
At the top [of the image] is a photograph of the right side of the original fragment of papyrus from which Joseph Smith was supposed to have translated the Book of Abraham.
Below [bottom of image] is a photograph of the original manuscript of the Book of Abraham as it appears in Joseph Smith's Egyptian Alphabet and Grammar.
manuscript of the text of the Book of Abraham as published in the first installment of the Times and Seasons March 1, 1842 (The Story of the Pearl of Great Price, 1962, pp. 172-73).
Mormon leaders were either not aware of the fact that the gift of papyri included the very fragment which was the basis for the text of the "Book of Abraham," or they hoped no one else would notice it. The following statement appeared in the Mormon paper, Deseret News: "As far as has yet been determined, the papyri do not contain any of the original material translated as the Book of Abraham itself" (Deseret News, November 28, 1967).
When the Mormon magazine, Improvement Era, printed sepia photographs of the papyri, the fragment of papyrus from which Joseph Smith translated the "Book of Abraham" was printed as the very last photograph. It is found on page 41 of the February 1968 issue, and is labeled: "XI. Small 'Sensen' text (unillustrated)."
All of the first two rows of characters on the papyrus fragment can be found in the manuscript of the "Book of Abraham" that is published in Joseph Smith's Egyptian Alphabet and Grammar. On page 341 of this book is a photograph of the original fragment of papyrus from which Joseph Smith was supposed to have translated the Book of Abraham. just below it is a photograph of the original manuscript of the "Book of Abraham" as it appears in Joseph Smith's Egyptian Alphabet and Grammar. We have numbered some of the characters on the first line of the fragment of papyrus so that the reader can compare them with the characters found in the handwritten manuscript.
The reader will probably be startled at the large number of English words which Joseph Smith "translated" from each Egyptian character. We will have more to say about this later.
As James R. Clark indicated, there is another copy of the "Book of Abraham" manuscript in the church historical department. Dr. Clark stated about this manuscript:
I have in my possession a photostatic copy of the manuscript of the Prophet Joseph Smith's translation of Abraham 1:1 to 2:18. This manuscript was bought by Wilford Wood in 1945 from Charles Bidamon, son of the man who married Emma after the death of the Prophet. The original of this manuscript is in the Church Historian's Office in Salt Lake City. The characters from which our present book of Abraham was translated are down the left-hand column and Joseph Smith's translation opposite, so we know approximately how much material was translated from
each character (Pearl of Great Price Conference, December 10, 1960, 1964 ed., pp. 60-61).
The Brigham Young University had photographs of this manuscript which Mr. Grant Heward was able to examine. This manuscript goes further than the one in the Alphabet and Grammar, and Mr. Heward found that the characters on this manuscript continue in consecutive order into the fourth line of the papyrus. This brings the text to Abraham 2:18. This is very interesting because when Joseph Smith printed the first installment of the "Book of Abraham" in the Times and Seasons he ended it at this point. We have been able to obtain photographs of this manuscript and can confirm Grant Heward's statements concerning it. (For a photographic reproduction of four pages of this manuscript and a comparison of the characters on it with those found on the papyrus see Mormonism—Shadow or Reality? pp. 312-13.) A careful examination of this manuscript reveals that Joseph Smith used less than four lines from the papyrus to make forty-nine verses in the "Book of Abraham." These forty-nine verses are composed of more than 2,000 English words! In his hook, Ancient Records Testify in Papyrus and Stone, page 79, Dr. Sperry informs us that there are "5,470 words" contained in the text of the "Book of Abraham." If Joseph Smith continued to translate the same number of English words from each Egyptian character, then the text for the entire "Book of Abraham" is probably contained on this one fragment of papyrus.
Klaus Baer, an Egyptologist at the University of Chicago, concluded concerning the "Sensen" fragment: "Joseph Smith thought that this papyrus contained the Book of Abraham" (Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, Autumn 1968, p. 111). In footnote 11 of the same article, Klaus Baer states that "This identification is now certain."
Mormon scholar Richley Crapo likewise observed:
In December of 1967, I was able to examine the original papyri in the vaults of the BYU library and obtain one of the first released sets of photographic copies.... A more careful examination of these revealed the startling fact that one of the papyri of the Church collection, known as the Small Sen-Sen Papyrus, contained the same series of heiratic symbols, which had been copied, in the same order, into the Book of Abraham manuscript next to verses of that book! In other words, there was every indication that the collection of papyri in the hands of the Church contained the source which led to a production of the Book of Abraham. It was naturally this document which I immediately
began to translate (Book of Abraham Symposium, LDS Institute of Religion, Salt Lake City, April 3, 1970, p. 27).
Although Dr. Hugh Nibley later reversed his position in an attempt to save the "Book of Abraham," in 1968 he frankly admitted that the papyrus which Joseph Smith used for the text of the "Book of Abraham" had been located. He wrote the following for the Improvement Era, May, 1968, page 54: "...the presence on the scene of some of the original papyri, including those used by the Prophet in preparing the text of the Book of Abraham and the Facsimiles with their commentaries, has not raised a single new question, though, as we shall see, it has solved some old ones."
Dr. Nibley made this admission in Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, Summer, 1968, page 102: "But after all, what do the papyri tell us? That Joseph Smith had them, and that the smallest and most insignificant-looking of them is connected in some mysterious way to the Pearl of Great Price."
At a meeting held at the University of Utah, Dr. Nibley stated:
Within a week of the publication of the papyri students began calling my attention, in fact, within a day or two, I think it was Witorf [?], called my attention to the fact that, the very definite fact that, one of the fragments seemed to supply all of the symbols for the Book of Abraham. This was the little "Sensen" scroll. Here are the symbols. The symbols are arranged here, and the interpretation goes along here and this interpretation turns out to be the Book of Abraham. Well, what about that? Here is the little "Sensen," because that name occurs frequently in it, the papyrus, in which a handful of Egyptian symbols was apparently expanded in translation to the whole Book of Abraham. This raises a lot of questions. It doesn't answer any questions, unless we're mind readers (Speech given by Hugh Nibley, University of Utah, May 20, 1968).
Only the Book of Breathings
In the Salt Lake City Messenger for March, 1968, we stated that Grant Heward felt that the fragment of papyrus Joseph Smith used as the basis for his "Book of Abraham" was in reality a part of the Egyptian "Book of Breathings." This identification has been confirmed by several prominent Egyptologists.
In order to understand what the "Book of Breathings" is about we must have some understanding of the Egyptian "Book of the Dead." E. A. Wallis Budge, who was keeper of the Egyptian and Assyrian antiquities in the British Museum, explained:
... the Book of the Dead cannot be regarded as the work of any
one man or body of men,... the beliefs of many people and periods are gathered together in it. As a whole, the Book of the Dead was regarded as the work of the god Thoth, the scribe of the gods ... in the Book of Breathings, in an address to the deceased it is said, "Thoth, the most mighty god, the lord of Khemennu (Hermopolis), cometh to thee, and he writeth for thee the Book of Breathings with his own fingers." Copies of the Book of the Dead, and works of a similar nature, were placed either in the coffin with the deceased, or in some part of the hall of the tomb, or of the mummy chamber, generally in a niche which was cut for the purpose (The Book of the Dead, An English Translation of the Chapters, Hymns, Etc., Of The Theban Recension, With Introduction, Notes, Etc., London, 1901, vol. 1, pp. 50-51 of intro.).
Egyptologist James Henry Breasted said that the "Book of the Dead" "was dominated by magic; by this all-powerful means the dead might effect all that he desired" (A History of Egypt, 1967, pp. 205-6). In his book, Development of Religion and Thought in Ancient Egypt, (pp. 293-96), Breasted comments:
There were sumptuous and splendid rolls, sixty to eighty feet long and containing from seventy-five to as many as a hundred and twenty-five or thirty chapters.... the Book of the Dead ... is but a far-reaching and complex illustration of the increasing dependence on magic in the hereafter... Besides many charms which enabled the dead to reach the world of the hereafter, there were those which prevented him from losing his mouth, his head, his heart, others which enabled him to remember his name, to breathe, eat, drink, avoid eating his own foulness, to prevent his drinking-water from turning into flame, to turn darkness into light, to ward off all serpents and other hostile monsters, and many others. The desirable transformations, too, had now increased, and a short chapter might in each case enable the dead man to assume the form of a falcon of gold, a divine falcon, a lily, a Phoenix, a heron, a swallow, a serpent called "son of earth," a crocodile, a god, and, best of all, there was a chapter so potent that by its use a man might assume any form that he desired.... To call it the Bible of the Egyptians, then, is quite to mistake the function and content of these rolls.
On page 308, Breasted tells us that the "Book of the Dead is chiefly a book of magical charms." Those who have studied the "Book of the Dead" know that it was written by a very superstitious people, and is quite different from the religion taught in the Bible.
The "Book of Breathings" is an outgrowth of the Egyptian "Book of the Dead." It did not appear until the later stages of Egyptian history—just a few centuries before the time of Christ.
E. A. Wallis Budge supplies this information about it:
The "Book of Breathings" is one of a number of short funeral works.... it was addressed to the deceased by the chief priest conducting the funeral service.... The "Book of Breathings" represents the attempt to include all essential elements of belief in a future life in a work shorter and more simple than the Book of the Dead.... To give the work an enhanced value it was declared to be the production of Thoth, the scribe of the gods (The Book of the Dead, Facsimiles of the Papyri of Hunefer, Anhai, Kerasher and Netchemet, by E. A. Wallis Budge, London, 1899, p. 33).
The fact that the papyrus Joseph Smith used as the basis for his "Book of Abraham" is in reality the "Book of Breathings" cannot be disputed because the name "Book of Breathings" appears clearly on the fourth line of the fragment. Even Dr. Hugh Nibley has translated the words "Book of Breathings" from this fragment of papyrus (see The Message of the Joseph Smith Papyri, page 20). In 1968 two Egyptologists from the University of Chicago's Oriental Institute, Professors John A. Wilson and Klaus Baer, identified the papyrus as the "Book of Breathings." Professor Richard A. Parker of Brown University also confirmed the fact that what Joseph Smith claimed was the "Book of Abraham" was in reality the "Book of Breathings." The editors of Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought wrote the following about this matter:
Richard A. Parker is the Wilbour Professor of Egyptology and Chairman of the Department of Egyptology at Brown University.... He remarks that the Book of Breathings is a late (Ptolemaic and Roman periods) and greatly reduced version of the Book of the Dead.... He would provisionally date the two Book of Breathings fragments in the Church's possession to the last century before or the first century of the Christian era ... Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, Summer 1968, p. 86).
Three Witnesses Against the Book of Abraham
In the Book of Mormonwe find this statement: "And in the mouth of three witnesses shall these things be established ..." (Ether 5:4). Joseph Smith's witnesses to the Book of Mormon were not trained in the science of Egyptology, and therefore could not possibly know whether Joseph Smith's "gold plates" were authentic or whether he translated them correctly. In the case of the "Book of Abraham," however, we have a different story. Three men who have been trained in the science of Egyptology have examined the text Joseph Smith used as a basis for the "Book of Abraham" and have declared that it is in reality
the "Book of Breathings"—a pagan text having nothing at all to do with Abraham or his religion. (Actually, to be more precise we should say that it is the instructions for wrapping up the "Book of Breathings" with the mummy.)
The first witness against the "Book of Abraham" is Dr. John A. Wilson. The New York Times, August 31, 1976, gave this information about him: "Dr. John A. Wilson, professor emeritus of Egyptology at the University of Chicago, died yesterday... Dr. Wilson succeeded Dr. James H. Breasted in 1936 as director of the university's Oriental Institute, holding the post for a decade and later serving as director again in 1960-61."
Although Dr. Wilson did not publish a translation of the "Book of Abraham" Papyrus, he did examine it, and indicated it was only a "mortuary text" known as the "Book of Breathings" (Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, Summer 1968, p. 68).
The second witness is Klaus Baer. Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought gave this information concerning him: "Klaus Baer is Associate Professor of Egyptology at the University of Chicago's Oriental Institute, and was one of Professor Hugh Nibley's primary tutors in the art of reading Egyptian characters" (Dialogue, Autumn 1968, p. 109). Klaus Baer's translation appears on pages 119-20 of the same issue.
The third witness against the "Book of Abraham" is Professor Richard A. Parker, chairman of the department of Egyptology at Brown University. Dr. Hugh Nibley had a copy of Richard Parker's translation of the "Sensen" text before it appeared in Dialogue, and in a speech delivered at the University of Utah on May 20, 1968, he stated: "...Professor Parker has translated that controversial little thing called the 'Sensen' papyrus, the little section, that text that matches up with some of the Book of Abraham." Instead of attacking Professor Parker's translation, as we might have expected him to do, Dr. Nibley praised it: "... here is Parker's translation of the 'Sensen' papyrus.... Parker being the best man in America for this particular period and style of writing. And Parker agreed to do it and he's done it. So it's nice ... it will be available ... in the next issue of the Dialogue."
Besides the translations provided by Professors Baer and Parker, there have been a number of others who have given renditions. To save space here we will only include Professor Parker's translation:
Except for a few minor variations other renditions of the text are essentially in agreement with Professor Parker's. The "Book of Abraham," therefore, has been proven to be a spurious work. The Egyptologists find no mention of Abraham or his religion in this text. The average number of words that the Egyptologists used to convey the message in this text is eighty-seven whereas Joseph Smith's rendition contains thousands of words. It is impossible to escape the conclusion that the "Book of Abraham" is a false translation.
After the publication of the papyri it became very obvious that Dr. Nibley was unprepared to deal with the problems related to the translation of the "Book of Abraham" and that he had no real answers to give his people. In an article published in Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, Summer, 1968, page 101, he queried:
Since the Sen-Sen business makes very little sense to anybody, while the Book of Abraham makes very good sense, one might suppose that Smith could have produced the latter without any reference to the former ... why on earth would he fasten on this particularly ugly little piece and completely by-pass the whole collection of handsome illustrated documents at his disposal? Did he really think he was translating? If so he was acting in good faith. But was he really translating? If so, it was by a process which quite escapes the understanding of the specialists and lies in the realm of the imponderable....
Today nobody claims that Joseph Smith got his information through ordinary scholary channels. In that case one wonders how any amount of checking along ordinary scholarly channels is going to get us very far.
When Dr. Nibley spoke at the University of Utah on May 20, 1968, he admitted that if Joseph Smith was "really translating the papyri" he did it in a way that is unknown to Egyptologists:
By what process could the Book of Abraham have been squeezed out of a few dozen brief signs? Nobody has told us yet. Was Joseph Smith really translating the papyri? If so, it was not in any way known to Egyptology.... Did he really need these symbols? This is a funny thing. Are they actually the source upon which he depended? Well, if he really depended on them,
he must really have been translating them. But, you say, he couldn't possibly have been translating. Could he have used this as a source at all? These questions arise. If he was merely faking, of course, pretending to be translating them, well, he wouldn't need the Egyptian text at all. Yet he used one, and he used it secretly... Why does he ignore the wealth of handsome illustrated texts at his disposal to concentrate only on the shortest and ugliest and most poorly written of the lot? ... Well, all sorts of questions arise.
At one point Dr. Nibley became so desperate to save the "Book of Abraham" that he suggested that the "Sensen" text may have a second meaning unknown to Egyptologists: "... you very often have texts of double meaning ... it's quite possible, say, that this 'Sensen' papyrus, telling a straight forward innocent little story or something like that, should contain also a totally different text concealed within it.... they [the Egyptians] know what they're doing, but we don't. We don't have the key" (Speech by Hugh Nibley, University of Utah, May 20, 1968).
Writing in the Brigham Young University Studies, Spring 1968, page 249, Dr. Nibley stated that Joseph Smith treated the characters as super-cryptograms—that is, writing with a hidden meaning: "It has long been known that the characters 'interpreted' by Joseph Smith in his Egyptian Alphabet and Grammar are treated by him as super-cryptograms; and now it is apparent that the source of those characters is the unillustrated fragment on which the word Sen-sen appears repeatedly. This identifies it as possibly belonging to those writings known as The Book of Breathings...."
Dr. Nibley's idea of a second meaning is certainly not new. In 1879 George Reynolds tried to refute Deveria's attack on the "Book of Abraham" by claiming "the Egyptian hieroglyphics had at least two (but more probably three) meanings...." (Are We of Israel? And The Book of Abraham, p. 128) When Marvin Cowan asked Professor Richard Parker if the papyri could have a second meaning, he replied that he knew of "no Egyptologist who would support such a claim" (letter dated Jan. 9, 1968).
Although Dr. Nibley gave some support to the theory that the papyrus might have a second or hidden meaning, he seems to have come to his senses and now realizes that such an idea cannot be successfully maintained. Unfortunately, however, he has come up with another theory which is as fantastic as the first: that the "Sensen" papyrus has no relationship to the "Book of Abraham." It is, in fact, "the directions for wrapping up the Joseph Smith papyri with the mummy" (The Message of
the Joseph Smith Papyri: An Egyptian Endowment, p. 6). According to Dr. Nibley's theory, Joseph Smith's scribes mistakenly copied the characters from the "Sensen" papyrus into the three handwritten manuscripts of the "Book of Abraham":
Is the Book of Abraham a correct translation of Joseph Smith Papyri X and XI? No, the Book of Breathings is not the Book of Abraham! ... Doesn't the text of the Book of Abraham appear in a number of manuscripts in columns running parallel with characters from the Book of Breathings? Yes, the brethren at Kirtland were invited to try their skill at translation; in 1835 the Prophet's associates.... made determined efforts to match up the finished text of the Book of Abraham with characters from the J. S. Papyrus No. XI ... (p. 2).
Dr. Nibley's suggestion that Joseph Smith's scribes added the wrong characters in the translation manuscripts is absolutely preposterous. That Joseph Smith would allow his scribes to copy the characters from the wrong papyrus into three different manuscripts of the "Book of Abraham" is really beyond belief. A person might almost as reasonably conclude that the "Book of Abraham" itself was made up by Joseph Smith's scribes. Dr. Nibley's attempt to separate the "Sensen" papyrus from the "Book of Abraham" cannot be accepted by anyone who honestly examines the evidence. The reader should remember that Dr. Nibley himself originally accepted the "Sensen" text as the source of the "Book of Abraham."
For more evidence to show that Dr. Nibley is making a grave error in trying to separate the "Book of Abraham" from the "Sensen" papyrus the reader should see our article in The Salt Lake City Messenger, April 1976, and Michael Marquardt's pamphlet The Book of Abraham Papyrus Found: An Answer to Dr. Hugh Nibley's Book ...
Since the original papyrus has been located, some Mormon apologists have suggested that Joseph Smith may have obtained the "Book of Abraham" by way of direct revelation and not from the papyrus. The person who tries to use this escape will find himself trapped by the words of Joseph Smith himself. At the beginning of the handwritten manuscript Joseph Smith stated that it was a "Translation of the Book of Abraham written by his own hand upon papyrus and found in the catacombs of Egypt." The introduction to the "Book of Abraham" still maintains that it was "Translated From The Papyrus, By Joseph Smith" (Pearl of Great Price, p. 29). Joseph Smith not only claimed that he translated it from the papyrus, but according to the History of the Church, volume 2, page 351, he said it was "a correct translation."
In Mormonism—Shadow or Reality? pages 322-24, we examine the Egyptian words which appeared in the handwritten manuscripts of the "Book of Abraham" and show how Joseph Smith mistranslated them. In one case we show that Joseph Smith "translated" 177 words out of the word "Khons"—the name of an Egyptian moon-god. The fact that Smith would make 177 English words from one Egyptian word is absolutely astounding! It shows very clearly that he did not understand the Egyptian language and that the "Book of Abraham" is a work of his own imagination.
Destroys Basis for Anti-Black Doctrine
As we have already shown, until June 9, 1978 the Mormon church taught that blacks were cursed and therefore could not hold the priesthood or receive equal treatment in the church. The basis for this anti-black doctrine is found in the pages of the "Book of Abraham." Chapter 1, verses 21-27 all seem to relate to this doctrine, but verse 26 is the most important. President David O. McKay stated that the "Book of Abraham" contained the only "scriptural basis" for denying blacks the priesthood.
In Mormonism—Shadow or Reality? pages 324-25 we demonstrate that Joseph Smith could not have obtained the anti-black doctrine from Egyptian characters on the "Sensen" papyrus. The loss of confidence in the "Book of Abraham" by intellectuals in the church undoubtedly played a part in convincing Mormon leaders it was time for a new revelation which would allow blacks to hold the priesthood.