In Part 3 of this series on revelation, we will closely examine the Book of Abraham. If you have not read Part 1 of this series, I highly recommend that you do so before reading this post (you can read it here).
Before we delve into the Book of Abraham, let’s briefly go over its history. Anotonio Lebolo, working under the consul general of Egypt, plundered several different tombs in Thebes in southern Egypt. He sold some of his findings and took other findings, including 11 mummies, to his home in Italy. After his death, his family had the mummies shipped to America to be sold to the highest bidder. Michael Chandler purchased them but failed to find any valuables inside the mummies other than some papyri, so he created a traveling curiosity show. After about two years of doing the show, he reached Kirtland, Ohio, where he met Joseph Smith. In July of 1835, Joseph rounded up $2,400 and purchased four of the mummies and at least five papyrus documents. Joseph then started the process of translating the papyri. This was an on-again, off-again project since other things required his attention (finishing the Kirtland temple, studying Hebrew, and of course, troubles in Missouri).
Joseph revised his completed translation slightly just before its publication in 1842. The original manuscripts from his translation were lost, which left only about a quarter of the written translation. Some accounts of his translation state that he used the Urim and Thummim (seer stone), but there are also other accounts that he just received direct revelation – “by direct inspiration of Heaven” (Warren Parrish, Scribe). Three installments of the Book of Abraham were published in the Times and Seasons, a Latter Day Saint newspaper operating in Nauvoo. In 1878, thirty-four years after Joseph’s death, the Pearl of Great Price, which included the Book of Abraham, was published in Utah. Just two years later it was canonized.
Although pieces of the original papyri are missing, we know from what does remain that what Joseph translated is not what was actually recorded on the papyri. The errors in the interpretation of the facsimiles that are printed in our scriptures (example shown below) are probably most obvious and blatant to an Egyptologist. There are several theories defending the translation, but in my opinion, they just muddy the water even more. Some say that because we don’t have all of the papyri, this gives a little wiggle room for what was translated. Some pass the book off as inspired text, meaning that Joseph was inspired by the papyri allowing him to reveal what is presented in the Book of Abraham. When asked about the translation, Elder Holland said, “All I’m saying, is that what got translated, got translated into the word of God. The vehicle for that —- I do not understand, and don’t claim to know and know no Egyptian.” Let’s run with this statement since it’s the most recent one that we have on the Book of Abraham from any church authority. It seems that Elder Holland doesn’t want to tie himself down to a literal translation, I assume because he knows that would be problematic.
Joseph Smith Explanation
Explanation by non-Mormon and Mormon Egyptologists (quotes are from Deveria 1860)
|1||The Angel of the Lord||“The soul of Osiris (which should have a human head)”|
|2||Abraham fastened upon an altar||“Osiris coming to life on his couch, which is in the shape of a lion”|
|3||The idolatrous priest of Elkenah attempting to offer up Abraham as a sacrifice||“The God Anubis (who should have a jackal’s head) effecting the resurrection of Osiris”|
|4||The altar for sacrifice by the idolatrous priests, standing before the gods of Elkenah [sic], Libnah,Mahmackrah, Korash, and Pharaoh||“The funeral bed of Osiris”|
|5||The idolatrous god of Elkenah||Canopic jar portraying Qebehsenuf with a falcon’s head – one of the four sons of Horus|
|6||The idolatrous god of Libnah||Canopic jar portraying Duamutef with a jackal’s head – one of thefour sons of Horus|
|7||The idolatrous god of Mahmackrah||Canopic jar portraying Hapy with an ape’s head – one of the four sons of Horus|
|8||The idolatrous god of Korash||Canopic jar portraying Imsety with a human head – one of thefour sons of Horus|
|9||The idolatrous god of Pharaoh||“The sacred crocodile, symbolic of the god Sedet”|
|10||Abraham in Egypt||“Altar laden with offerings”|
|11||Designed to represent the pillars of heaven, as understood by the Egyptians||“An ornament peculiar to Egyptian art”|
|12||Raukeeyang, signifying expanse, or the firmament over our heads; but in this case, in relation to this subject, the Egyptians meant it to signify Shaumau, to be high, or the heavens, answering to the Hebrew word, Shaumahyeem||“Customary representation of ground in Egyptian paintings (The word Shauman is not Egyptian, and the Hebrew word is badly copied)”|
So if we accept the Book of Abraham as inspiration or revelation, knowing that the translation is wrong, we need to address the bias factors, or human touch, in the revelation. Joseph’s work was influenced a lot by Masonry. I would say that apart from the Bible, the book Antiquities of Free-Masonry had the biggest influence on the content of the Book of Abraham. Here are some highlights from Antiquities of Free-Masonry:
- more than one world
- other planets are inhabited
- all have masonry (priesthood)
- Abraham interested in astronomy
- Abraham almost sacrificed
So when Joseph got the papyri, and he saw the images of a throne, stars, sacrifice, and altars (all things that are discussed in Antiquities of Free-Masonry), maybe in his mind it supported the Masonic story. Maybe he believed that he saw the story of Abraham as told in the masonry book illustrated in the papyri drawings. I think Joseph tried to make this fit as he “translated” hieroglyph by hieroglyph.
As mentioned earlier, I think the Bible was the most influential resource for Joseph in translating the papyri. The Book of Abraham contains numerous direct quotes from the Bible (KJV): “great whales, and every living creature that moveth” (Genesis 1:21); “Whom shall I send? Here am I. Send me” (Isaiah 6:8); etc. Other possible influences include the books which Joseph had in his personal library include:
- The Works of Flavius Josephus: A Jewish historian, Flavius Josephus, related a tradition that Abraham had taught Egyptians the science of astronomy: “He communicated to them arithmetic, and delivered to them the science of astronomy. For before Abram came into Egypt, they were unacquainted with some parts of learning; for that science came from the Chaldeans into Egypt…”
- Philosophy of a Future State (Thomas Dick): This has an amazing amount of resemblances to the astronomical concepts and phrases in the Book of Abraham.
- The Six Books of Proclus on the Theology of Plato (Taylor): Both Dick and Taylor contain a number of similar phrases in Abraham. They also contain these related topics: intelligences and council of the Gods.
When I first started this post, I thought the translation of the Book of Abraham would be similar in process to the Book of Mormon, but it seems to carry a heavier hand of Joseph. I believe Joseph really tried to translate the Egyptian papyri and completely failed. He was obsessed with languages. He saw languages as a way to connect or unite us with our ancestor’s pure language. He felt that his language left him less capable to comprehend God’s will and that if he could connect to what was spoken in the Garden of Eden then he wouldn’t be limited by his language. The Egyptian papyri was to Joseph a step closer to the Adamic language he was seeking. (We will discuss this in more detail in a future post regarding the Kirtland Egyptian Papers.)
I am not sure Joseph saw the Book of Abraham as canonical scripture and maybe even doubted his translation. The 13 Articles of Faith make no mention of the Book of Abraham, even though the first segment was published earlier than the Articles. Joseph also wrote: “Of some ancient Records that have fallen into our hands, from the Catacombs of Egypt, purporting to be the writings of Abraham…” (Times and Seasons [vol 3, no.9 (March 1, 1842)]). This same quote was also in the original 1851 edition of the Pearl of Great Price; “purporting to be” was removed in later editions.
I do, however, like the fact that Joseph studied other ideas of well-respected thinkers. He was very open-minded to those ideas and in many cases, as shown with the Book of Abraham, incorporated them into his belief system. Why can’t we do that today? Why do Mormons so often exclude other sources of knowledge and inspiration? Brigham Young said: ” “Mormonism” embraces all truth that is revealed and that is unrevealed, whether religious, political, scientific, or philosophical.” (Brigham Young, JD, 9: 149) As for the Book of Abraham, I am not looking for any more theories that try to support a direct (and accurate) translation. I’m ok with it being inspired fiction. The take-away message for me is that Joseph was open to other ideas, traditions, and beliefs; and that is a beautiful thing.
Next post we will discuss the revelation bias concerning the priesthood and temple ban for black LDS members.