The Book of Abraham

The Book of Abraham is part of the Mormon books that make up their canon of scripture. It is contained in the Pearl of Great Price which also contains the Book of Moses, Joseph-Smith Matthew, Joseph Smith-History, and the Articles of Faith.

book of AbrahamContained in the Book of Abraham is a first person account of Abraham's life and journey into Egypt as well as a record of a vision he received through the Urim and Thummim. Abraham was forced to journey into Egypt because of a famine throughout the land. He describes the idolatry of Egyptian belief and was saved from being made a human sacrifice at the hand of an Egyptian priest. In the vision he describes, the Lord teaches him about the heavens; the sun, moon, and stars. He is shown the dwelling place of God. The Lord also shows Abraham the spirits of all men before the Creation. He learns the eternal nature of spirits--that we all existed before we were born--and sees the council in heaven where the Redeemer was chosen, the devil and his angels cast out, and the plan set forth for mortality. Then Abraham is shown the Creation and the Fall of Adam in the Garden of Eden. The Book of Abraham, translated by Joseph Smith, contains further information concerning the Abrahamic Covenant, the eternal nature of spirits, and the purpose of life. It also contains three facsimiles of Egyptian hieroglyphs with some interpretations by Joseph Smith.

Joseph Smith identified the Book of Abraham in 1835 on papyri brought to him by an entrepreneur that heard the Book of Mormon story and wanted to see if Joseph could translate his Egyptian relics. Joseph arranged to purchase the papyri for the purpose of doing a full translation and agreed to buy four mummies as part of the deal. The constant persecution of the Mormons and other duties as president of the Church prevented a quick translation, but what he had finished of the papyri was published in the Times and Seasons in 1842. That was what now comprises the Book of Abraham and facsimiles. Before he was able to translate any more, Joseph Smith was martyred in 1844 at Carthage Jail. Joseph's widow, Emma, eventually sold the Egyptian papyri and mummies and they ended up in a Chicago museum. They were thought destroyed by the 1871 Chicago fire but in 1966 fragments of the papyri were found in the Metropolitan Museum in New York City.

The rediscovery of fragments of the Egyptian papyri allowed Egyptology, which was barely existent in Joseph Smith's day, to perform their own translation and compare it to Joseph's. For critics of the Mormon Church and Joseph Smith it provided potential evidence to discredit Joseph's claim as a prophet. The evidence used from scientific testing against the Book of Abraham cites the age and content of the recovered fragments. The wording used by Joseph Smith and Mormon leaders to describe the Book of Abraham said it was written by the hand of Abraham, however, the age of the papyri is only about 2,000 years old. This is hardly proof of anything. Paul's writings in the New Testament were written by him, but this does not mean that Paul handwrote every copy of the Bible in the world. It means that the words are Paul's, despite translation, recopying, etc.

The modern translation of the fragments and one facsimile found that the papyri were not the writings of Abraham, but a funerary text called "The Book of Breathings." This in not conclusive proof either, since Joseph Smith only translated a portion of the papyri, and what was found in New York were only fragments of one part of the papyri. It may be that the Book of Abraham papyri was destroyed in the Chicago fire. Mormon scholars, most notably Hugh Nibley, have done research on the found papyri too, and have their own interpretations that do not even rule out the translation of the rediscovered papyri from containing information on Abraham. One example from Nibley is that the facsimile may be interpreted as an ordinary funerary scene as well as a scene from Abraham's life, for Egyptians often allowed multiple meanings and interpretations of the same symbols.

Some Mormon scholars have offered an explanation of the Book of Abraham that would only be accepted by believers of the Mormon Church. Joseph Smith and the Mormon Church have always used the word translation to describe the process of writing the Book of Mormon, the revision of the Bible, and the Book of Abraham, but it isn't clear exactly what the process was. It is supposed that it was more like dictating revelation than a word-for-word translation of a text. This happened several times in Mormon history. When translating the Book of Mormon it has been described that Joseph did not actually need to read every symbol, but through the seer stones he was able to dictate their content to his scribe. When performing the Joseph Smith Translation of the Bible there are several passages in Genesis that were greatly expanded upon, beyond what was contained in the Bible. Section 7 of the Doctrine and Covenants is described as a "translation" of a parchment written by the Apostle John. Although no mention is ever made of Joseph possessing a physical text, he provides a translation by revelation of an account that John once recorded. Those who wish to disparage the Mormon Church will always have their evidence, but it is of no consequence to the faithful. For those who believe Joseph Smith was a prophet, and therefore received revelation, scientific nitpicking is irrelevant, for religion reveals what scientific endeavor never will: truth, not fact.