The Relationship Between the Book of Abraham and the Joseph Smith Papyri

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Book of Abraham Insight #40

It is clear that Joseph Smith’s inspired translation of the Book of Abraham was connected to the Egyptian papyri he acquired in the summer of 1835. However, less clear is the precise relationship shared between the Book of Abraham text and the papyri.

Several theories posit ways in which the Book of Abraham text relates to the papyri. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints maintains that Joseph Smith translated the Book of Abraham from papyri, but they do not specify which papyri. Theories about the relationship may be categorized under three heads: Joseph Smith produced the Book of Abraham (1) from the fragments of papyri that we still have, (2) from papyri that we no longer have, or (3) without the aid of any of the Joseph Smith Papyri.1

Exploring these theories individually reveals that while they each have some evidence for them, “not all of the theories account equally for the historical evidence. It is worth knowing some of the problems associated with the various theories. Whichever theory one chooses to follow, one must be prepared to deal with the problems posed by the evidence that the theory cannot account for.”2

Theory 1: Joseph Smith translated the Book of Abraham from surviving papyri fragments

The proponents of this theory maintain that Joseph Smith derived the Book of Abraham from the surviving fragments of the Hor Book of Breathings (P. Joseph Smith I, XI+X). This theory is mainly advocated by critics of Joseph Smith who want to cast doubt on the Prophet’s claims to inspiration, since these surviving fragments do not translate as the Book of Abraham.3 Some Latter-day Saint scholars also believe Joseph Smith attempted to translate the Book of Abraham from the surviving papyri fragments based on their interpretation of the historical data.4

The two main points of evidence cited by proponents of this theory are: (1) the hieratic Egyptian characters from P. Joseph Smith XI that appear in the margins of the early Book of Abraham manuscripts, and (2) the apparent reference to Facsimile 1 (the illustration in P. Joseph Smith I) at Abraham 1:12, 14.5 At first glance these two pieces of evidence may appear persuasive, but other scholars have disputed their explanatory power in connecting the English text of the Book of Abraham to the surviving fragments.

For example, it is not clear who added the hieratic characters in the margins of the Book of Abraham manuscripts or when they were added. It is also not clear what the scribe was thinking when they added the characters. It has been widely assumed that they were added at Joseph Smith’s direct prompting during the process of translation, but this is not certain.6 “Though the juxtaposition of the characters and Book of Abraham text implies a relationship between the two, the exact nature of that relationship is not stated” and is complicated by the evidence that the manuscripts which bear these marginal characters appear to be copies of an earlier text that is no longer extant.7 There is thus no “demonstrable relationship between the characters on the papyri and the text of the Book of Abraham.”8 Any assumed relationship between the two remains an assumption.

A page from one of the Kirtland-era Book of Abraham manuscripts in the handwriting of Warren Parrish. Characters from the Egyptian papyri can be seen in the left margin of the manuscript. Image via the Joseph Smith Papers website.

The second point of evidence (the reference to Facsimile 1 at Abraham 1:12, 14) is likewise more complicated than is often supposed. For starters, scholars have recognized that the last line of Abraham 1:12 (““I will refer you to the representation at the commencement of this record”) and all of Abraham 1:14 (“That you may have an understanding of these gods, I have given you the fashion of them in the figures at the beginning, which manner of figures is called by the Chaldeans Rahleenos, which signifies hieroglyphics”) are interlinear insertions in the earliest manuscript copy of the Book of Abraham.9 What’s more, even if one assumes these references were original and not added later, “the reference [at Abraham 1:12, 14] indicates that the vignette depicting the altar and idols is not adjacent to the text but some distance from it.”10 In other words, the reference at Abraham 1:12, 14 could be read as indicating just the opposite of how proponents of this theory understand it.

Theory 2: Joseph Smith translated the Book of Abraham from missing papyri fragments

This theory has gained traction as scholars have looked more closely at nineteenth century eyewitness descriptions of the papyri believed to be the source of the Book of Abraham.

The nineteenth-century eyewitnesses, both Mormon and non-Mormon, favorable and hostile to the Church, agree that the Book of Abraham was translated from a long roll of papyrus that was still a long roll in the 1840s and 1850s. The current fragments of the Joseph Smith Papyri, however, were all mounted on heavy paper and placed in glass frames in 1837. None of them can be the long roll described in the 1840s and 1850s. So these fragments are specifically not the source of the Book of Abraham according to the eyewitnesses.11

The main advantage to this theory is that it can account for the nineteenth century eyewitness evidence. It also answers the objections raised by those who rightly point out that the Hor Book of Breathings is not the Book of Abraham. However, this theory has been criticized on the grounds that while there are indeed missing portions of papyri (for example, Facsimiles 2 and 3 are no longer extant) it is questionable to some whether there was enough missing papyri to accommodate a hypothetical missing Book of Abraham text.12 Furthermore, even though “this theory accounts for [the eyewitness] evidence” it is still “frustrating to many people. Because the papyri are no longer extant, there is no possible way to check Joseph Smith’s translation of the Book of Abraham.”13

Theory 3: Joseph Smith translated the Book of Abraham without any physical papyri

This theory argues that Joseph Smith translated the Book of Abraham directly by revelation without using any physical papyri. As an essay published by the Church recently articulated,

Joseph’s study of the papyri may have led to a revelation about key events and teachings in the life of Abraham, much as he had earlier received a revelation about the life of Moses while studying the Bible. This view assumes a broader definition of the words translator and translation. According to this view, Joseph’s translation was not a literal rendering of the papyri as a conventional translation would be. Rather, the physical artifacts provided an occasion for meditation, reflection, and revelation. They catalyzed a process whereby God gave to Joseph Smith a revelation about the life of Abraham, even if that revelation did not directly correlate to the characters on the papyri.14

Those who adopt this theory urge Latter-day Saints to reconsider the scope and mechanism of “translation” in Joseph Smith’s theology and scriptural productions.15 The strength of this theory is that it is consistent with the Prophet’s other scriptural productions. “One advantage is that in Doctrine and Covenants section 7, Joseph Smith translated an ancient papyrus that he never had in his possession; hence, there is a precedent for Joseph Smith translating a papyrus that was not in his possession, and so there is no reason to suppose that he had to have the papyrus of the Book of Abraham in his possession either.”16 At the same time, however, the main drawback to this theory is that Joseph Smith himself believed that he possessed a physical record of Abraham.17

“Given our current state of knowledge,” concludes one Latter-day Saint scholar, “the theory that Joseph Smith translated the Book of Abraham from papyri that we no longer have accounts for the most evidence with the fewest problems. Even so, for none of the theories is the evidence as neat or as compelling as one might wish.”18 It could even be argued that some of these (and other) theories might be combined to form new paradigms. “As scholars continue to find, research, and analyze the evidence that bears on this subject, future studies will undoubtedly illuminate other theories that have not yet been conceived.”19

Since The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has not taken an official stance on how the translation of the Book of Abraham was accomplished other than by revelation, and since the evidence is not as clear or as complete as we might like, it would perhaps be wiser for readers to worry less about the method of the translation and more about the results.

Further Reading

John Gee, “The Relationship of the Book of Abraham Text to the Papyri,” in An Introduction to the Book of Abraham (Salt Lake City and Provo, UT: Deseret Book and Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 2017), 83–86.

Kerry Muhlestein, “Joseph Smith and Egyptian Artifacts: A Model for Evaluating the Prophetic Nature of the Prophet’s Ideas about the Ancient World,” BYU Studies Quarterly 55, no. 3 (2016): 35–82.

Kerry Muhlestein, “The Explanation-Defying Book of Abraham,” in A Reason for Faith: Navigating LDS Doctrine and Church History, ed. Laura Harris Hales (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book and Provo, UT: Brigham Young University’s Religious Studies Center, 2016), 79–91.

Footnotes

 

1 John Gee, An Introduction to the Book of Abraham (Salt Lake City and Provo, UT: Deseret Book and Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 2017), 83.

2 Gee, An Introduction to the Book of Abraham, 84.

3 Michael D. Rhodes, The Hor Book of Breathings: A Translation and Commentary (Provo, UT: Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 2002).

4 Brian M. Hauglid, “The Book of Abraham and the Egyptian Project: ‘A Knowledge of Hidden Languages’,” in Approaching Antiquity: Joseph Smith and the Ancient World, edited by Lincoln H. Blumell, Matthew J. Grey, and Andrew H. Hedges (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center; Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2015), 474–511.

5 Grant S. Heward and Jerald Tanner, “The Source of the Book of Abraham Identified,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 3, no. 2 (1968): 89–97; Christopher C. Smith, “‘That which Is Lost’: Assessing the State of Preservation of the Joseph Smith Papyri,” The John Whitmer Historical Association Journal 31, no. 1 (Spring/Summer 2011): 73.

6 See the discussion in Kerry Muhlestein, “Assessing the Joseph Smith Papyri: An Introduction to the Historiography of their Acquisitions, Translations, and Interpretations,” Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture 22 (2016): 32–36; “The Explanation-Defying Book of Abraham,” in A Reason for Faith: Navigating LDS Doctrine and Church History, ed. Laura Harris Hales (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book and Provo, UT: Brigham Young University’s Religious Studies Center, 2016), 81–82, 84–85; “Egyptian Papyri and the Book of Abraham: A Faithful, Egyptological Point of View,” in No Weapon Shall Prosper: New Light on Sensitive Issues, ed. Robert L. Millet (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University; Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2011), 228–229.

7 Brent M. Rogers et al., eds., The Joseph Smith Papers, Documents, Volume 5: October 1835–January 1838 (Salt Lake City, UT: The Church Historian’s Press, 2017), 74–75.

8 Muhlestein, “The Explanation-Defying Book of Abraham,” 85.

9 Gee, An Introduction to the Book of Abraham, 143; Rogers et al., eds., The Joseph Smith Papers, Documents, Volume 5, 78; Robin Scott Jensen and Brian M. Hauglid, eds., The Joseph Smith Papers, Revelations and Translations, Volume 4: Book of Abraham and Related Manuscripts (Salt Lake City, UT: The Church Historian’s Press, 2018), 195–196nn57, 64.

10 Muhlestein, “Assessing the Joseph Smith Papyri,” 29–32, quote at 30; cf. “Egyptian Papyri and the Book of Abraham,” 225–226.

11 Gee, An Introduction to the Book of Abraham, 85; cf. pp. 4–5; “Eyewitness, Hearsay, and Physical Evidence of the Joseph Smith Papyri,” in The Disciple as Witness: Essays on Latter-day Saint History and Doctrine in Honor of Richard Lloyd Anderson, ed. Stephen D. Ricks, Donald W. Parry, and Andrew H. Hedges (Provo, UT: FARMS, 2000), 175–217; Kerry Muhlestein, “Papyri and Presumptions: A Careful Examination of the Eyewitness Accounts Associated with the Joseph Smith Papyri,” Journal of Mormon History 42, no. 4 (October 2016): 31–50.

12 One of the main points of contention is whether it can be mathematically calculated how much papyrus is currently missing, and what was potentially contained on the missing portion. For different arguments, see John Gee, “Some Puzzles from the Joseph Smith Papyri,”FARMS Review 20, no. 1 (2008): 117–123; Andrew W. Cook and Christopher C. Smith, “The Original Length of the Scroll of Hôr,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 43, no. 4 (2010): 1–42; “Formulas and Faith,”Journal of the Book of Mormon and Other Restoration Scripture 21, no. 1 (2012): 60–65; Smith, “‘That which Is Lost’,” 69–83; Muhlestein, “Papyri and Presumptions,” 31–50.

13 Gee, An Introduction to the Book of Abraham, 85.

14 “Translation and Historicity of the Book of Abraham,” Gospel Topics.

15 Karl C. Sandberg, “Knowing Brother Joseph Again: The Book of Abraham, and Joseph Smith as Translator,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 22, no. 4 (Winter 1989): 17–38; Terryl Givens, The Pearl of Greatest Price: Mormonism’s Most Controversial Scripture (New York, N.Y.: Oxford University Press, 2019), 180–202.

16 Gee, An Introduction to the Book of Abraham, 85.

17 Gee, An Introduction to the Book of Abraham, 85–86.

18 Gee, An Introduction to the Book of Abraham, 85.

19 Kerry Muhlestein, “Joseph Smith and Egyptian Artifacts: A Model for Evaluating the Prophetic Nature of the Prophet’s Ideas about the Ancient World,” BYU Studies Quarterly 55, no. 3 (2016): 67.

How Did Joseph Smith Translate the Book of Abraham?

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Book of Abraham Insight #39

Multiple sources associated with the coming forth of the Book of Abraham spoke of Joseph Smith as translating the text.1 The Prophet himself used this language to describe his own activity with the text. For example, an entry in Joseph Smith’s journal under the date November 20, 1835 indicates the Prophet “spent the day in translating” the Egyptian records.2 In an unpublished editorial that was apparently meant to be printed in the March 1, 1842 issue of the Times and Seasons (the issue that saw the publication of the first installment of the Book of Abraham), Joseph Smith signaled his desire to “continue to translate and publish [the text] as fast as possible [until] the whole is completed.”3 What was published with the Book of Abraham was a preface announcing it as “A TRANSLATION Of some ancient Records that have fallen into our hands . . . purporting to be the writings of Abraham.”4

But while Joseph Smith and others used the word “translation” to describe the production of the Book of Abraham, the means or methods Joseph used to translate ancient scripture were unique. Rather than utilizing dictionaries, grammar books, and lexicons, Joseph translated scripture through revelation. This can be seen in the other efforts Joseph Smith undertook throughout his prophetic ministry to produce other books of scripture.5

The Book of Mormon

Joseph Smith’s signature work of scripture is the Book of Mormon, which the Prophet claimed to have translated from golden plates “by the gift and power of God.”6 While early efforts to decipher the “reformed Egyptian” (Mormon 9:32) characters of the Book of Mormon evidently did involve some mental effort by the Prophet and his scribes,7 ultimately the translation was accomplished through the use of divinely-prepared seer stones. “When Joseph Smith began translating the Book of Mormon in 1827, he usually left the plates in a box or wrapped in a cloth, placed the interpreters or his seer stone (both of which seem to have been called Urim and Thummim) in a hat, and read the translation he saw in the stone to a scribe. . . . When the first 116 pages of the Book of Mormon were stolen, an angel took back the interpreters, and Joseph instead used his seer stone.”8 All of this suggests that Joseph Smith’s mechanism for translating the Book of Mormon, while still in some way conveying one language (Egyptian) to another (English), was more closely synonymous with revelation.9

The Parchment of John (Doctrine and Covenants 7)

Doctrine and Covenants 7 was received by Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery in April 1829 just before or during the time when Oliver acted as a scribe for the translation of the Book of Mormon.10 When this section was first published in 1833, it was described as “a Revelation [sic] given to Joseph and Oliver”  and was said to have been “translated from parchment, written and hid up by” a figure named John (presumably the beloved disciple). 11 This revealed “translation” of John’s record was received, like the Book of Mormon, through seeric instruments (the Urim and Thummim).12 It is important to remember that during this process Joseph Smith “did not have physical possession of the papyrus he was translating.”13

The chapter heading to Chapter VI of the 1833 Book of Commandments (Doctrine and Covenants 7). The heading identifies this text as both a revelation and a translation. Image via the Joseph Smith Papers website.

The “New Translation” of the Bible

Another important effort undertaken by Joseph Smith was what he called a “new translation” of the Bible.14 Accomplished principally between 1830–1833, this “new translation” of the Bible (today called the Joseph Smith Translation) was not accomplished by the Prophet carefully scrutinizing Hebrew and Greek manuscripts, nor even by consulting his seer stone or the Urim and Thummim, but instead by revising the English text of the King James Version of the Bible.15 “At the beginning of this translation, Joseph Smith would dictate long passages to his scribe without the use of the Urim and Thummim. When Sidney Rigdon began serving as a scribe, however, he apparently persuaded Joseph to change his practice and mark only passages in the Bible that needed changes and record those.”16 Even though Joseph and his clerks were revising the English text of the KJV and sometimes revealing entirely new content (such as portions of what is today called the Book of Moses in the Pearl of Great Price),17 they nevertheless called the project a translation. While it is arguable that a handful of Joseph Smith’s revisions to the KJV Bible are indeed more precise renderings of the underlying Greek and Hebrew, or that the larger portions revealed by the Prophet in some way correspond to now-lost ancient manuscripts, this once again indicates the broad range of meaning the Prophet applied to this term.

The Book of Abraham

When it comes to the nature of the translation of the Book of Abraham, there is not much direct evidence for how Joseph accomplished the work. “No known first-person account from Joseph Smith exists to explain the translation of the Book of Abraham, and the scribes who worked on the project and others who claimed knowledge of the process provided only vague or general reminiscences.”18 John Whitmer, then acting as the Church’s historian and recorder, commented that “Joseph the Seer saw these Record[s] and by the revelation of Jesus Christ could translate these records … which when all translated will be a pleasing history and of great value to the saints.”19 Another important source is Warren Parrish, one of the scribes who assisted Joseph in the production of the Book of Abraham. After his disaffection from the Church in 1837, Parrish reported that in his capacity as Joseph’s scribe he “penned down the translation of the Egyptian Hieroglyphicks as [Joseph] claimed to receive it by direct inspiration from Heaven.”20 Parrish’s statement, like Whitmer’s, emphasizes that the method of Joseph’s “translation of the Egyptian Hieroglyphicks” was revelatory, not academic, but that the Prophet was still performing a translation of an ancient language. Unfortunately, Parrish did not elaborate further on the precise nature of this translation “by direct inspiration.”

Other sources report that the Prophet used the Urim and Thummim (meaning probably one of his seer stones) in the translation of the Book of Abraham, although these sources come from those not immediately involved in the production of the text, and in one instance may have been confusing the translation process of the Book of Abraham with the translation process of the Book of Mormon, and so they should be accepted cautiously.21 If Joseph did use a seer stone in the translation of the Book of Abraham, this would reinforce the point that the method or means of translation for the Prophet was unique.

Joseph Smith’s brown seer stone. Some sources reported the Prophet using the Urim and Thummim (perhaps this or a similar seer stone) in the translation of the Book of Abraham. Image via the Joseph Smith Papers website.

Clues from the Book of Abraham text itself suggests that the Prophet felt free to continually adapt and revise his initial translation. For example, some of the names of the characters in the Book of Abraham were revised in 1842 shortly before the publication of the Book of Abraham.22 Likewise, Joseph Smith’s study of Hebrew appears to have also influenced the final form of the text, as Joseph’s knowledge of such influenced either how he initially rendered or later revised certain words and phrases in the Book of Abraham’s creation account.23 One of the glosses at the beginning of the book (“which signifies hieroglyphics”; Abraham 1:14) is not present in the Kirtland-era manuscripts, which appears to indicate that it came from Joseph Smith or one of his scribes at the time of the publication of the text.24 Another gloss (“I will refer you to the representation at the commencement of this record”; Abraham 1:12) was inserted interlineally, suggesting that “the references to the facsimiles within the text of the Book of Abraham seem to have been nineteenth-century editorial insertions”25 (although this is not the only interpretation of this data point).26

It should not come as a surprise that Joseph Smith (or his scribes) made revisions to the English text of the Book of Abraham and still called it a translation, since he also revised his revelations that comprise the Doctrine and Covenants and the Book of Mormon in subsequent editions after their initial publication.27

Replica of the Urim and Thummim by Brian Westover, photo by Daniel Smith. Image via Book of Mormon Central.

Whatever his precise method of translation, which Joseph specified no more than being “by the gift and power of God,” more important is what the Prophet produced. As Hugh Nibley recognized, “[T]he Prophet has saved us the trouble of faulting his method by announcing in no uncertain terms that it is a method unique to himself depending entirely on divine revelation. That places the whole thing beyond the reach of direct examination and criticism but leaves wide open the really effective means of testing any method, which is by the results it produces.”28 The results of Joseph Smith’s inspired translations are books of scripture that would have been beyond the Prophet’s natural ability to produce on his own. This is true for the Book of Abraham, which evinces numerous signs of having been derived from the ancient world as it claims and not from Joseph Smith’s fertile imagination or nineteenth-century environment.29

A fuller grasp of this fascinating and important subject therefore includes appreciating how Joseph Smith and other early Latter-day Saints used words such as “translation” in ways that are similar but also in some ways very different than how they are typically used today.30

Further Reading

Kerry Muhlestein, “Book of Abraham, translation of,” in The Pearl of Great Price Reference Companion, ed. Dennis L. Largey (Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book, 2017), 63–69.

John Gee, “Joseph Smith and the Papyri,” in An Introduction to the Book of Abraham (Salt Lake City and Provo, UT: Deseret Book and Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 2017), 13–42.

Hugh Nibley, “Translated Correctly?” in The Message of the Joseph Smith Papyri: An Egyptian Endowment (Salt Lake City and Provo, UT: Deseret Book and FARMS, 2005), 51–65.

Robert J. Matthews, “Joseph Smith—Translator,” in Joseph Smith: The Prophet, The Man, ed. Susan Easton Black and Charles D. Tate Jr. (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 1993), 77–87.

Footnotes

 

1 History, 1838–1856, volume B-1 [1 September 1834–2 November 1838], 596; John Whitmer, History, 1831–circa 1847, 76; Warren Parrish, letter to the editor, Painesville Republican, 15 February 1838, cited in John Gee, “Some Puzzles from the Joseph Smith Papyri,” FARMS Review 20, no. 1 (2008): 115n4.

2 Journal, 1835–1836, 47.

3 Editorial, circa 1 March 1842, Draft, 1.

4 “Book of Abraham,” Times and Seasons 3, no. 9 (March 1, 1842): 704, emphasis in original.

5 See the overview and discussion in Kerry Muhlestein, “Book of Abraham, translation of,” in The Pearl of Great Price Reference Companion, ed. Dennis L. Largey (Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book, 2017), 63–69; cf. “Assessing the Joseph Smith Papyri: An Introduction to the Historiography of their Acquisitions, Translations, and Interpretations,” Interpreter: A Journal of Latter-day Saint Faith and Scholarship 22 (2016): 32–39; Hugh Nibley, “Translated Correctly?” in The Message of the Joseph Smith Papyri: An Egyptian Endowment (Salt Lake City and Provo, UT: Deseret Book and FARMS, 2005), 51–65; Robin Scott Jensen and Brian M. Hauglid, eds., The Joseph Smith Papers, Revelations and Translations, Volume 4: Book of Abraham and Related Manuscripts (Salt Lake City, UT: The Church Historian’s Press, 2018), xxii–xxvi.

6 “Church History,” Times and Seasons 3, no. 9 (March 1, 1842): 707.

7 David E. Sloan, “The Anthon Transcripts and the Translation of the Book of Mormon: Studying It Out in the Mind of Joseph Smith,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 5, no. 2 (1996): 57–81.

8 John Gee, An Introduction to the Book of Abraham (Salt Lake City and Provo, UT: Deseret Book and Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 2017), 20.

9 For an overview, see Michael Hubbard MacKay, “‘Git Them Translated’: Translating the Characters on the Gold Plates,” in Approaching Antiquity: Joseph Smith and the Ancient World, ed. Lincoln H. Blumell, Matthew J. Grey, and Andrew H. Hedges (Salt Lake City and Provo, UT: Deseret Book and Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 2015), 83–116; Brant A. Gardner, “Translating the Book of Mormon,” in A Reason for Faith: Navigating LDS Doctrine and History, ed. Laura Harris Hales (Salt Lake City and Provo, UT: Deseret Book and Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 2016), 21–32.

10 “Account of John, April 1829–C [D&C 7],” in The Joseph Smith Papers, Documents, Volume 1: July 1828–June 1831, ed. Michael Hubbard MacKay et al. (Salt Lake City, UT: The Church Historian’s Press, 2013), 47–48. For the historical context of this section, see Jeffrey G. Cannon, “Oliver Cowdery’s Gift,” in Revelations in Context: The Stories Behind the Sections of the Doctrine and Covenants, ed. Matthew McBride and James Goldberg (Salt Lake City, UT: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 2016), 15–19.

11 “Chapter VI.,” in A Book of Commandments, for the Government of the Church of Christ, Organized according to Law, on the 6th of April, 1830 (Independence, MO: W. W. Phelps & Co., 1833), 18. In the Manuscript Revelation Book this section is called a “revelation” and not explicitly a “translation.” Revelation Book 1, 13.

12 History, 1838–1856, volume A-1 [23 December 1805–30 August 1834], 15.

13 Gee, An Introduction to the Book of Abraham, 21; cf. MacKay et al., The Joseph Smith Papers, Documents, Volume 1, 48n129.

14 Letter to Church Leaders in Jackson County, Missouri, 25 June 1833, [1]; Letter to Church Leaders in Jackson County, Missouri, 2 July 1833, 52.

15 See generally Kent P. Jackson, “Joseph Smith’s New Translation of the Bible,” in Joseph Smith, the Prophet and Seer, ed. Richard Neitzel Holzapfel and Kent P. Jackson (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University; Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2010), 51–76; “The King James Bible and the Joseph Smith Translation,” in The King James Bible and the Restoration, ed. Kent P. Jackson (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 2011), 197–214; Royal Skousen, “The Earliest Textual Sources for Joseph Smith’s ‘New Translation ‘ of the King James Bible,” FARMS Review 17, no. 2 (2005): 451–470; The History of the Text of the Book of Mormon. Part Five: The King James Quotations in the Book of Mormon (Provo, Utah: The Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 2019), 132–140.

16 Gee, An Introduction to the Book of Abraham, 21.

17 In fact, it appears that part of the process in revising some portions of the text of the “new translation” involved Joseph consulting popular biblical commentaries of his day. See “Joseph Smith’s Use of Bible Commentaries in His Translations,” LDS Perspectives Podcast, Episode 55.

18 Robin Scott Jensen and Brian M. Hauglid, eds., The Joseph Smith Papers, Revelations and Translations, Volume 4: Book of Abraham and Related Manuscripts (Salt Lake City, UT: The Church Historian’s Press, 2018), xxiii.

19 John Whitmer, History, 1831–circa 1847, 76.

20 Warren Parrish, letter to the editor, Painesville Republican, February 15, 1838.

21 Wilford Woodruff Journal, February 19, 1842, in Scott G. Kenney, ed., Wilford Woodruff’s Journal (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1983), 2:155; Parley P. Pratt, “Editorials,” The Latter-day Saints’ Millennial Star 3 (July 1, 1842): 47; Friends’ Weekly Intelligencer, October 3, 1846, 211; Orson Pratt, Journal of Discourses (August 25, 1878), 20:65. The account in the Friends’ Weekly Intelligencer reads thus: “[W]hen Joseph was reading the papyrus, he closed his eyes, and held a hat over his face, and that the revelation came to him; and that where the papyrus was torn, he could read the parts that were destroyed equally as well as those that were there; and that scribes sat by him writing, as he expounded.” The detail of Joseph placing his face into his hat to read the papyrus sounds much like how witnesses described the translation of the Book of Mormon, suggesting the possibility that the paper misreported or confused which text Lucy Mack Smith was describing.

22 See Pearl of Great Price Central, “Zeptah and Egyptes,” Book of Abraham Insight #8 (August 28, 2019).

23 Matthew J. Grey, “‘The Word of the Lord in the Original’’: Joseph Smith’s Study of Hebrew in Kirtland,” in Approaching Antiquity, 249–302; Kerry Muhlestein and Megan Hansen, “‘The Work of Translating’: The Book of Abraham’s Translation Chronology,” in Let Us Reason Together: Essays in Honor of the Life’s Work of Robert L. Millett, ed. J. Spencer Fluhman and Brent L. Top (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book and Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center and Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship, Brigham Young University, 2016), 149–153.

24 Jensen and Hauglid, The Joseph Smith Papers, Revelations and Translations, Volume 4, 309n85.

25 Gee, An Introduction to the Book of Abraham, 143; Jensen and Hauglid, The Joseph Smith Papers, Revelations and Translations, Volume 4, 195n57.

26 Kerry Muhlestein, “Assessing the Joseph Smith Papyri: An Introduction to the Historiography of their Acquisitions, Translations, and Interpretations,” Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture 22 (2016): 29–32; “The Explanation-Defying Book of Abraham,” in A Reason for Faith, 82; “Egyptian Papyri and the Book of Abraham: A Faithful, Egyptological Point of View,” in No Weapon Shall Prosper: New Light on Sensitive Issues, ed. Robert L. Millet (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University; Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2011), 225–226.

27 See Royal Skousen, “Changes in The Book of Mormon,” Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture 11 (2014): 161–176; Marlin K. Jensen, “The Joseph Smith Papers: The Manuscript Revelation Books,” Ensign, July 2009, 47–51; Robin Scott Jensen, Richard E. Turley, Jr., and Riley M. Lorimer, eds., “Joseph Smith–Era Publications of Revelations,” in The Joseph Smith Papers, Revelations and Translations, Volume 2: Published Revelations (Salt Lake City, UT: The Church Historian’s Press, 2011), ix–xxxvi.

28 Nibley, The Message of the Joseph Smith Papyri, 63.

29 As discussed in the Book of Abraham Insight articles posted here at Pearl of Great Price Central, as well as in Gee, An Introduction to the Book of Abraham, 49–55, 97–105.

30 See further Robert J. Matthews, “Joseph Smith—Translator,” in Joseph Smith: The Prophet, The Man, ed. Susan Easton Black and Charles D. Tate Jr. (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 1993), 77–87; Richard Lyman Bushman, “Joseph Smith as Translator,” in Believing History: Latter-day Saint Essays, ed. Reid L. Neilson and Jed Woodworth (New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 2004), 233–247; Alexander L. Baugh, “Joseph Smith: Seer, Translator, Revelator, and Prophet,” BYU devotional speech, June 24, 2014; “Joseph Smith as Revelator and Translator,” The Joseph Smith Papers Project.

The “Kirtland Egyptian Papers” and the Book of Abraham

KEP1

Book of Abraham Insight #38

Associated with the translation of the Book of Abraham is a collection of documents known today as the Kirtland Egyptian Papers.1 This name was coined by Hugh Nibley in the early 1970s to describe a corpus of manuscripts that can be classified into, broadly, two categories: Book of Abraham manuscripts and Egyptian-language manuscripts.2 Although still commonly used, because some of these documents post-date the Kirtland period of Latter-day Saint history, and because it is somewhat vague, the name coined by Nibley to describe this corpus has fallen out of use among scholars who prefer more precise classifications. What’s more, “The[se] name designations are modern ones and typically reflect assumptions of the individuals using the particular designations. No [single] designation [to describe these texts] has gained wide acceptance.”3

Notwithstanding, as mentioned above, this corpus “can be divided into two fairly distinct parts: “(1) those papers that center primarily on the text of the Book of Abraham and (2) those that focus on alphabet and grammar material that the authors connected to the ancient Egyptian language.”4 The Abraham manuscripts (1) are what contain the extant English text of the Book of Abraham. These manuscripts date from between mid-1835 to early-1842 and are in the handwriting of W. W. Phelps, Warren Parrish, Frederick G. Williams, and Willard Richards.5 The Egyptian-language manuscripts (2) are comprised of a hodgepodge of documents that transcribe portions of the characters from the Egyptian papyri and appear to attempt to systematize an understanding of the Egyptian language in the handwriting of W. W. Phelps, Joseph Smith, Oliver Cowdery, and Warren Parrish.6 While these two groups can be broadly distinguished, “it should also be understood that the Abraham documents contain a certain amount of Egyptian material and the Egyptian papers include a certain amount of Abraham material.”7 Because of this, it is clear that there is some kind of relationship between these two groups.

Although there is an apparent relationship between these two groups of documents, because of conflicting interpretations of the historical data among scholars “almost every aspect of these documents is disputed: their authorship, their date, their purpose, their relationship with the Book of Abraham, their relationship with the Joseph Smith Papyri, their relationship with each other, what the documents are or were intended to be, and even whether the documents form a discrete or coherent group.”8 This uncertainty has unfortunately resulted in a lack of consensus on how to understand this collection.

KEP2
The first page of the “Grammar & A[l]phabet of the Egyptian Language” in the handwriting of W. W. Phelps, dating to mid- to late-1835. Image via the Joseph Smith Papers website.

Although it is clear that the Egyptian-language documents in the Kirtland Egyptian Papers reflect a sincere attempt by those involved to somehow understand the Egyptian language (there is no evidence for conscious fraud or deceit on the part of those involved), “like many similar efforts of the time to unravel the mysteries of the Egyptian language, these attempts are considered by modern Egyptologists—both Latter-day Saints and others—to be of no actual value in understanding [the] Egyptian” language.9 Because of this, some have attempted to use the Egyptian-language documents to cast doubt on Joseph Smith’s prophetic inspiration or the authenticity of the Book of Abraham. This effort, however, is highly questionable for many reasons.

First, “The extent of Joseph Smith’s involvement in the creation of these manuscripts is unknown.”10 While it is true that he had some involvement in the project since his handwriting appears in one manuscript and his signature on another,11 there is not enough evidence to conclusively demonstrate that Joseph Smith was the driving instigator behind the effort to create a systematized grammar of the Egyptian language.

Second, “It is unclear when in 1835 Joseph Smith began creating the existing Book of Abraham manuscripts or what relationship the Book of Abraham manuscripts have to the Egyptian-language documents.”12

Third, while “considerable overlap of themes exists between the Book of Abraham and the Egyptian-language documents . . . most of the Book of Abraham is not textually dependent on any of the extant Egyptian-language documents. The inverse is also true: most of the content in the Egyptian-language documents is independent of the Book of Abraham.”13

Fourth, and finally, the Egyptian-language documents were never presented as authoritative revelation similar to Joseph Smith’s other canonized books of scripture. “What emerges most clearly from a closer look at the Kirtland Egyptian Papers is the fact that there is nothing official or final about them—they are fluid, exploratory, confidential, and hence free of any possibility or intention of fraud or deception.”14

A manuscript titled “Egyptian Counting” in the handwriting of W. W. Phelps, dating to mid- to late-1835. Image via the Joseph Smith Papers website.

Rather than viewing the Egyptian-language documents as Joseph Smith’s botched revelation, they might instead more plausibly be seen as part of “an interest in ancient languages within the early church and an anticipation that additional ancient texts would be revealed.”15 This interest prompted Joseph Smith and those close to him to attempt a secular study of other ancient languages such as Hebrew and Greek.16 The Egyptian-language project undertaken by some early Latter-day Saints and associated with the coming forth of the Book of Abraham may very well be situated in that same context.

There is still much that we do not know about the so-called Kirtland Egyptian Papers, including the precise circumstances surrounding their creation and purpose. While their ultimate nature remains debated, the work of scholars in recent years has called into question older assumptions and arguments about the extent of Joseph Smith’s participation in the Egyptian-language project and the Book of Abraham’s dependency on these manuscripts. In the mean time, what can be safely concluded is that “although we have incomplete information on exactly how the Book of Abraham was translated, the resulting contents of that translation are more important than the process itself.”17

Further Reading

John Gee, “Joseph Smith and the Papyri,” in An Introduction to the Book of Abraham (Salt Lake City and Provo, UT: Deseret Book and Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 2017), 13–42.

Brian M. Hauglid, “The Book of Abraham and the Egyptian Project: ‘A Knowledge of Hidden Languages’,” in Approaching Antiquity: Joseph Smith and the Ancient World, edited by Lincoln H. Blumell, Matthew J. Grey, and Andrew H. Hedges (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center; Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2015), 474–511.

Hugh Nibley, “The Meaning of the Kirtland Egyptian Papers,” BYU Studies 11, no. 4 (Summer 1971): 350–399; reprinted in An Approach to the Book of Abraham (Provo, UT: FARMS, 2009), 502–568.

Footnotes

 

1 Hugh Nibley, “The Meaning of the Kirtland Egyptian Papers,” BYU Studies 11, no. 4 (Summer 1971): 350–399; reprinted in An Approach to the Book of Abraham (Provo, UT: FARMS, 2009), 502–568.

2 Brian M. Hauglid, “The Book of Abraham and the Egyptian Project: ‘A Knowledge of Hidden Languages’,” in Approaching Antiquity: Joseph Smith and the Ancient World, edited by Lincoln H. Blumell, Matthew J. Grey, and Andrew H. Hedges (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center; Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2015), 447–449.

3 John Gee, An Introduction to the Book of Abraham (Salt Lake City and Provo, UT: Deseret Book and Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 2017), 32–33.

4 Hauglid, “The Book of Abraham and the Egyptian Project,” 477.

5 Hauglid, “The Book of Abraham and the Egyptian Project,” 477–478; Gee, An Introduction to the Book of Abraham, 34–35.

6 Hauglid, “The Book of Abraham and the Egyptian Project,” 478; Gee, An Introduction to the Book of Abraham, 34–35. The Book of Abraham manuscripts and related Egyptian-language documents can be viewed online at the Joseph Smith Papers website.

7 Hauglid, “The Book of Abraham and the Egyptian Project,” 477.

8 Gee, An Introduction to the Book of Abraham, 33.

9 Robin Scott Jensen and Brian M. Hauglid, eds., The Joseph Smith Papers, Revelations and Translations, Volume 4: Book of Abraham and Related Manuscripts (Salt Lake City, UT: The Church Historian’s Press, 2018), xxv.

10 Jensen and Hauglid, eds., The Joseph Smith Papers, Revelations and Translations, Volume 4, xv.

11 Jensen and Hauglid, eds., The Joseph Smith Papers, Revelations and Translations, Volume 4, xv; Gee, An Introduction to the Book of Abraham, 34.

12 Jensen and Hauglid, eds., The Joseph Smith Papers, Revelations and Translations, Volume 4, xxv. For different arguments on the direction of the dependency between the Book of Abraham and the Egyptian-language documents, see Hauglid, “The Book of Abraham and the Egyptian Project,” 474–511; Kerry Muhlestein, “Assessing the Joseph Smith Papyri: An Introduction to the Historiography of their Acquisitions, Translations, and Interpretations,” Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture 22 (2016): 33–37.

13 Jensen and Hauglid, eds., The Joseph Smith Papers, Revelations and Translations, Volume 4, xxv.

14 Nibley, “The Meaning of the Kirtland Egyptian Papers,” 399.

15 Jensen and Hauglid, eds., The Joseph Smith Papers, Revelations and Translations, Volume 4, xxi.

16 See Matthew J. Grey, “‘The Word of the Lord in the Original’: Joseph Smith’s Study of Hebrew in Kirtland,” in Approaching Antiquity, 249–302; John W. Welch, “Joseph Smith’s Awareness of Greek and Latin,” in Approaching Antiquity, 303–328.

17 Gee, An Introduction to the Book of Abraham, 39.

What Egyptian Papyri Did Joseph Smith Possess?

JSP1

Book of Abraham Insight #37

Joseph Smith acquired the Egyptian papyri associated with the coming forth and translation of the Book of Abraham in July 1835. From historical evidence and the papyrus fragments that were returned to the The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in November 1967,1 we can piece together a profile of what papyri Joseph Smith is known to have possessed.

The Book of Breathings of Hor (P. Joseph Smith I, X–XI)2

One of the texts that came into Joseph Smith’s ownership was a copy of a text known today as the Book of Breathings (what the ancient Egyptians called the šˁyt n snsn; translated variously as “Document of Breathing” or “Letter of Fellowship”3). The purpose of this text, which the Egyptians believed had been written by the goddess Isis (and so was called, in full, “The Document of Breathing Made By Isis for Her Brother Osiris”; šˁyt n snsn ỉr·n Ἰst n sn·s Wsir), “was to provide the deceased with the essential information needed to be resurrected from the dead and attain eternal life with the gods in the hereafter.”4 Indeed, as the text itself explicitly says, its purpose was to cause the deceased’s “soul to live, to cause his body to live, to rejuvenate all his limbs again, so that he might join the horizon with his father, Re, to cause his soul to appear in heaven as the disk of the moon, so that his body might shine like Orion in the womb of Nut.”5

Today there are thirty-three extant copies of the Book of Breathings Made By Isis.6 “While all extant copies of the . . . Document of Breathing are very similar, no two are exactly identical.”7 The known copies belonged almost exclusively to members of families of the priesthood of Amun-Re at the Karnak Temple in Thebes, “which suggests the text might be associated with that office.”8 The copy of this text that Joseph Smith owned belonged anciently to an Egyptian priest named Hor (Ḥr) or Horos (in Greek) and is quite probably the oldest known copy (dating to circa 200 BC).9 Thanks to the work of Egyptologists since the rediscovery of the Joseph Smith Papyri, we know quite a bit about Hor and his occupation as a priest that has direct bearing on the Book of Abraham.10

The Book of the Dead of Tshemmin (P. Joseph Smith II, IV–IX)

Another papyrus scroll that came into Joseph Smith’s possession was a text owned anciently by a woman named Tshemmin (tȝ-šrỉt-[nt]-Min) or Semminis (her Greek name).11 “Semminis’s scroll contained a Book of the Dead. Originally a very long scroll, it was greatly reduced, and only fragmentary pieces ever reached Joseph Smith.”12 This copy of the Book of the Dead dated to probably sometime during the third to second century BC.13 The Book of the Dead is the name given by modern Egyptologist to a collection of writings called by the ancient Egyptians “Utterances of Coming Forth By Day” (rȝw nw prt m hrw).14 Among other purposes, this text “served as a protection for the bearer. It describes its purpose as aiding the spirit in becoming exalted, ascending to and descending from the presence of the gods, and appearing as whatever wanted, wherever wanted.”15

P. Joseph Smith IV, containing passages from the Book of the Dead. Image via the Joseph Smith Papers website.

Although the Book of the Dead is often (and understandably) referred to as a “funerary text,” Egyptologists now recognize that this text served non-funerary purposes.16 For example, the Book of the Dead had a connection to the ancient Egyptian temple which may have significant implications for the Book of Abraham and for the Latter-day Sant temple endowment ceremony.17 “The sections of Semminis’s Book of the Dead in the Joseph Smith Papyri cover part of the introductory chapter, some of the texts dealing with Semminis’s being able to appear as various birds or animals, texts allowing her to board the boat of the supreme god and meet with the council of the gods, texts providing her with food and other good things and making her happy, and a text asserting her worthiness to enter into the divine presence.”18

The Book of the Dead of Neferirnub (P. Joseph Smith IIIa–b)

Joseph Smith also possessed a papyrus fragment that contained a section of the Book of the Dead that belonged to a woman named Neferirnub (Nfr-ỉr-nbw).19 This copy of the Book of the Dead probably dates to sometime during the first century BC to the first century AD.20 The surviving fragment contains “a portion of the vignette of chapter 125” of the Book of the Dead.21 This section of the Book of the Dead portrays a judgment scene which “shows the deceased standing before [the god] Osiris with her heart being weighed in scales.”22

This portion of the Book of the Dead was being used in Egyptian temples by the time period of the Joseph Smith Papyri.23 It was also being used in the initiation and purification rituals of Egyptian priests.24 Interestingly, Oliver Cowdery described the scene portrayed in this papyrus fragment as the judgment of the dead in 1835.25

The Scroll of Amenhotep (“Valuable Discovery”)26

Another papyrus roll that Joseph Smith owned belonged to a man named Amenhotep (Ἰmn-ḥtp).27 Unfortunately, the original papyrus containing this text is not extant. It is only known from a nineteenth century copy in the handwriting of Oliver Cowdery and appears, based on the reading of one Egyptologist, to be portions of a copy of the Book of the Dead.28 Because only a few lines of hieratic Egyptian characters were copied (enough to give us the name of the owner of the papyrus and a perhaps sense of what it contained, but not much more), it is unknown to when this papyrus dates.

The Hypocephalus of Sheshonq (Facsimile 2)

Finally, Joseph Smith owned a hypocephalus that anciently belonged to a man named Sheshonq (Ššq).29 This hypocephalus was published on March 15, 1842 in the Times and Seasons as Facsimile 2 of the Book of Abraham.30 Unfortunately, the original hypocephalus is not extant. However, because this type of document is rare and belonged primarily to a select group of Egyptian priests and their family members, we can date Sheshonq’s hypocephalus to sometime during the Late Period to the Ptolemaic Period (circa 664–30 BC).31 The significance and purpose of the ancient Egyptian hypocephalus has already been described in a previous Book of Abraham Insight article.32

It should be remembered that this is what we currently know Joseph Smith possessed. It is possible, and indeed likely, that Joseph Smith possessed more papyri than has currently survived. What may have been contained on the portion of missing papyrus, and exactly how much papyrus is missing, are open questions that scholars are still investigating.33

Further Reading

John Gee, “The Contents of the Joseph Smith Papyri,” in An Introduction to the Book of Abraham (Salt Lake City and Provo, UT: Deseret Book and Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 2017), 73–81.

Michael D. Rhodes, Books of the Dead Belonging to Thsemmin and Neferirnub: A Translation and Commentary (Provo, UT: Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship, 2010).

Michael D. Rhodes, The Hor Book of Breathings: A Translation and Commentary (Provo, UT: Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 2002).

Footnotes

 

1 Jay M. Todd, “Egyptian Papyri Rediscovered,” Improvement Era, January 1968, 12–16.

2 The numbering for the papyri used in this article follows the numbering used in Jay M. Todd, “New Light on Joseph Smith’s Egyptian Papyri,” Improvement Era, February 1968, 40–49. The papyri themselves can be viewed online at the Joseph Smith Papers Project website (“Egyptian Papyri, circa 300 BC–AD 50”).

3 For different arguments on the best translation of the title see John Gee, “A New Look at the ˁnẖ pȝ by Formula,” in Actes du IXe congrès international des études démotiques, Paris, 31 août–3 septembre 2005, ed. Ghislaine Widmer and Didier Devauchelle (Paris: Institut Français D’Archaéologie Orientale, 2009), 136–138; Foy David Scalf III, Passports to Eternity: Formulaic Demotic Funerary Texts and the Final Phase of Egyptian Funerary Literature in Roman Egypt (PhD diss., The University of Chicago, 2014), 19–27.

4 Michael D. Rhodes, The Hor Book of Breathings: A Translation and Commentary (Provo, UT: Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 2002), 14.

5 Rhodes, The Hor Book of Breathings, 28; see additionally Mark Smith, Traversing Eternity: Texts for the Afterlife from Ptolemaic and Roman Egypt (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2009), 462–478.

6 Marc Coenen, “Owners of the Document of Breathings Made by Isis,” Chronique D’Egypt 79, no. 157–158 (2004): 59–72.

7 Marc Coenen, “The Ownership and Dating of Certain Joseph Smith Papyri,” in Robert K. Ritner, The Joseph Smith Egyptian Papyri, A Complete Edition: P. JS 1–4 and the Hypocephalus of Sheshonq (Salt Lake City, UT: The Smith–Pettit Foundation, 2011), 58.

8 John Gee, “Book of Breathings,” in The Pearl of Great Price Reference Companion, ed. Dennis L. Largey (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2017), 69.

9 Marc Coenen, “The Dating of the Papyri Joseph Smith I, X, and XI and Min Who Massacres His Enemies,” in Egyptian Religion: The Last Thousand Years, Part II: Studies Dedicated to the Memory or Jan Quaegebeur, ed. Willy Clarysse, Antoon Schoors, and Harco Willems (Leuven: Peeters, 1998), 1103–1115; Rhodes, The Hor Book of Breathings, 3.

10 See Pearl of Great Price Central, “The Ancient Owners of the Joseph Smith Papyri,” Book of Abraham Insight #14 (October 8, 2019).

11 Michael D. Rhodes, Books of the Dead Belonging to Tshemmin and Neferirnub: A Translation and Commentary (Provo, UT: Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship, 2010), 5.

12 John Gee, “The Contents of the Joseph Smith Papyri,” in An Introduction to the Book of Abraham (Salt Lake City and Provo, UT: Deseret Book and Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 2017), 76.

13 Rhodes, Books of the Dead Belonging to Tshemmin and Neferirnub, 7.

14 Rhodes, Books of the Dead Belonging to Tshemmin and Neferirnub, 1. For an accessible yet fairly comprehensive overview of the Book of the Dead, consult Foy Scalf, ed., Book of the Dead: Becoming God in Ancient Egypt (Chicago, Ill.: The Oriental Institute, 2017).

15 Gee, An Introduction to the Book of Abraham, 76.

16 John Gee, “The Use of the Daily Temple Liturgy in the Book of the Dead,” in Totenbuch—Forschungen: Gesammelte Beitrage des 2. Internationalen Totenbuch—Symposiums 2005, ed. Burkhard Backes, Irmtraut Munro, and Simone Stöhr (Wiesbaden, Germany: Harrassowitz Verlag, 2006), 73–86; Alexandra Von Lieven, “Book of the Dead, Book of the Living: BD Spells as Temple Texts,” The Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 98 (2012): 258–259.

17 See Hugh W. Nibley, The Message of the Joseph Smith Papyri: An Egyptian Endowment, 2nd ed. (Salt Lake City and Provo, UT: Deseret Book and FARMS, 2005); Stephen O. Smoot and Quinten Barney, “The Book of the Dead as a Temple Text and the Implications for the Book of Abraham,” in The Temple: Ancient and Restored, ed. Stephen D. Ricks and Donald W. Parry, Temple on Mount Zion Series 3 (Orem, UT: Interpreter Foundation and Salt Lake City: Eborn Books, 2016), 183–209.

18 Gee, An Introduction to the Book of Abraham, 76.

19 Rhodes, Books of the Dead Belonging to Tshemmin and Neferirnub, 57.

20 Rhodes, Books of the Dead Belonging to Tshemmin and Neferirnub, 57.

21 Rhodes, Books of the Dead Belonging to Tshemmin and Neferirnub, 57.

22 Rhodes, Books of the Dead Belonging to Tshemmin and Neferirnub, 57.

23 Von Lieven, “Book of the Dead, Book of the Living,” 263–264.

24 Robert K. Ritner, “Book of the Dead 125,” in The Context of Scripture: Volume II, Monumental Inscriptions from the Biblical World, ed. William W. Hallo (Leiden: Brill, 2003), 60; John Gee, “Prophets, Initiation and the Egyptian Temple,” Journal of the Society for the Study of Egyptian Antiquities 31 (2004): 101.

25 “Egyptian Mummies—Ancient Records,” Messenger and Advocate 2, no. 3 (December 1835): 236.

26 Robin Scott Jensen and Brian M. Hauglid, eds. The Joseph Smith Papers, Revelations and Translations, Volume 4: Book of Abraham and Related Manuscripts (Salt Lake City, UT: The Church Historian’s Press, 2018), 27–41. This text can be viewed online at the Joseph Smith Papers Project website (“‘Valuable Discovery,’ circa Early July 1835”).

27 John Gee, A Guide to the Joseph Smith Papyri (Provo, UT: FARMS, 2000), 10–13; Ritner, The Joseph Smith Egyptian Papyri, 209–213.

28 Jensen and Hauglid, The Joseph Smith Papers, Revelations and Translations, Volume 4, 27. Ritner, The Joseph Smith Egyptian Papyri, 209, misleadingly describes the document as Joseph Smith’s “hand copy.” In fact, besides his signature on the front cover, Joseph Smith’s handwriting does not appear in the “Valuable Discovery” notebook. The English text and, in the judgment of Jensen and Hauglid, “likely” the hieratic characters are in the hand of Oliver Cowdery.

29 Michael D. Rhodes, “A Translation and Commentary of the Joseph Smith Hypocephalus,” BYU Studies 17, no. 3 (Spring 1977): 260–262; Michael D. Rhodes, “The Joseph Smith Hypocephalus…Twenty Years Later,” FARMS Preliminary Report (1997).

30 “The Book of Abraham,” Times and Seasons 3, no. 10 (March 15, 1842): [721].

31 Tamás Mekis, Hypocephali, PhD diss. (Eötvös Loránd University, 2013), 1:12, 2:122.

32 Pearl of Great Price Central, “The Purpose and Function of the Egyptian Hypocephalus,” Book of Abraham Insight #30 (January 13, 2020).

33 For different perspectives and arguments on the subject of how much papyri is missing, and what was potentially contained thereon, see John Gee, “Some Puzzles from the Joseph Smith Papyri,” FARMS Review 20, no. 1 (2008): 117–123; Andrew W. Cook and Christopher C. Smith, “The Original Length of the Scroll of Hôr,” Dialogue 43, no. 4 (2010): 1–42; “Formulas and Faith,” Journal of the Book of Mormon and Other Restoration Scripture 21, no. 1 (2012): 60–65; Christopher C. Smith, “‘That which Is Lost’: Assessing the State of Preservation of the Joseph Smith Papyri,” The John Whitmer Historical Association Journal 31, no. 1 (Spring/Summer 2011): 69–83; Kerry Muhlestein, “Papyri and Presumptions: A Careful Examination of the Eyewitness Accounts Associated with the Joseph Smith Papyri,” Journal of Mormon History 42, no. 4 (October 2016): 31–50.

Isis the Pharaoh (Facsimile 3, Figure 2)

Fac3Fig2

Book of Abraham Insight #36

The explanation given for Facsimile No. 3 identifies Figure 2 as “King Pharaoh, whose name is given in the characters above his head.” One potential way to identity this figure by Egyptological methods would be to read “the characters [hieroglyphs] above his head.” Unfortunately, the original illustration or vignette from the papyrus is not extant, and so we are forced to decipher the glyphs as they are reproduced in Facsimile 3 by their engraver Reuben Hedlock. While Hedlock appears to have done a fairly commendable job accurately reproducing the facsimiles (at least based on a comparison of Facsimile 1 with the extant original papyrus), he also made some noticeable mistakes.1 So the first issue at hand in resolving the question of the identity of this figure would be to determine how legible these glyphs actually are. In fact, a number of Egyptologists who have examined Facsimile 3 have lamented that the hieroglyphs reproduced by Hedlock were partially or entirely illegible,2 “leaving them to rely upon comparable scenes from other texts to provide their interpretations of the figures.”3  The only two Egyptologists who have made an attempt in print to read the hieroglyphs above Figure 2 render them as:4

Robert Ritner (2011)

Michael Rhodes (2002)

ȝs.t wr.t mw.t nṯr

“Isis the great, the god’s mother.”

ỉs.t wr.t mw.t nṯr

“The great Isis, mother of the god.”

Ritner does not provide a hieroglyphic transcription for his reading, while Rhodes does. A careful comparison of the glyphs as reproduced by Hedlock and Rhodes, however, reveals some difficulties.5
The hieroglyphic caption for Figure 2 of Facsimile 3 as reproduced by Ruben Hedlock in the 1842 Times and Seasons, right, next to Egyptologist Michael D. Rhodes’ transcription, left, published in his 2002 translation of the Joseph Smith Papyri.
The most noticeable difference is in the top three glyphs which form the name Isis. These glyphs were either poorly preserved by Hedlock or poorly drawn by the original ancient Egyptian scribe (it is impossible to tell without the original papyrus fragment), making them effectively illegible. What Egyptologists such as Rhodes (and, it would appear, Ritner) have done is reconstruct and read these glyphs how they think they ought to be read (as the name of Isis), as opposed to how they actually stand in the preserved facsimile.6 So while this figure might be reasonably identified as Isis based on similar iconographic elements found in comparable scenes,7 the identity of this figure cannot be securely reached based solely on reading the poorly-preserved hieroglyphs. The identification of this figure as Isis is therefore worth exploring, but there are reasons for this identification to be accepted cautiously. At first glance, this appears problematic for Joseph Smith, since, as seen above, scholars identify this figure as the goddess Isis (or sometimes the goddess Hathor, who was often syncretized with Isis8), not the Egyptian Pharaoh. If we assume that this identification is correct, a closer look at the attributes and epithets ascribed to the goddess Isis during the time Facsimile 3 was drawn reveals that this identification actually has some justification. As the mother of the god Horus, who was the godly manifestation of Pharaoh, Isis had long been recognized as the royal mother and the king’s wife by the ancient Egyptians. “She was most commonly shown as a woman wearing the throne symbol that helps to write her name. As the ‘throne goddess,’ she was the mother of each Egyptian king.”9
Isis2
A bronze or copper alloy statue of the goddess Isis nursing her son Horus dated to the Third Intermediate Period–Late Period (circa 1070–343 B.C). Image via the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
By virtue of her royal associations and because of her extensive worship throughout the Mediterranean world, by the time of the Joseph Smith Papyri Isis had come to be identified as the very Pharaoh(ess) of Egypt. In one text from this time period, for example, she is called “the Pharaoh(ess) of the whole land” (tȝ pr-ˁȝt nt tȝ r-ḏr·f).10 Of her additional dozens of epithets and titles, she was also designated, among other things, “ruler of the two lands in the house of joy” (hḳȝt-tȝwy m ḥwt ȝwṯ-ỉb),11  “ruler of gods and goddesses” (hḳȝt nṯrw nṯrwt),12 “the Pharaoh(ess) of everything” (pr-ˁȝt nt tm nb),13 “the queen who seizes office by her power” (nswt ỉṯỉ ỉȝwt m sḫrw·s),14 “excellent ruler” (ḥḳȝt mnḫt),15 “excellent queen” (nswt mnḫt),16 “excellent ruler on the throne of her father” (ḥḳȝt mnḫt ḥr nst ỉt·s),17 “ruler of Egypt” (ḥḳȝt nt bȝḳt),18 and “queen of all Egypt” (nswt nt snwt r ȝw·s).19 These and similar epithets were routinely given to the reigning monarch, whether male or female, and inasmuch as Isis’ name in Egyptian literally means “throne” or “seat,” her shared identity with the office of the Pharaoh is not at all surprising. “As the presumed embodiment of the ‘seat of the throne,’ [Isis] is in a special way bound to kingship and thus to the political aspect of [the king’s] divine nature; her role as mother of Horus and sister-wife of Osiris binds her even more closely into the Egyptian kingship, in which the living King Horus [the Pharaoh] embodies.”20 Accordingly, “with the idea of the Great Lady [Isis] actually” personifying the throne, and thereby the Egyptian kingship, “the incongruity of [Joseph Smith’s identification of] figure 2 [in Facsimile 3] as ‘King Pharaoh’ begins to dissolve.”21

Further Reading

Hugh Nibley, Abraham in Egypt, 2nd ed. (Salt Lake City and Provo, UT: Deseret Book and FARMS, 2000), 382–465.

Footnotes

1 For instance, Hedlock positioned Figure 3 in Facsimile 1 behind Figures 2 and 4, whereas in the original illustration Figure 3 is positioned between Figures 2 and 4.

2 Thus William Flinders Petrie, “The inscriptions are far too badly copied to be able to read them,” or John Peters, “The hieroglyphics which should describe the scenes, however, are merely illegible scratches, the imitator not having the skill or intelligence to copy such a script” in Franklin S. Spalding, Joseph Smith, Jr. As a Translator (Salt Lake City: The Arrow Press, 1912), 24, 28. Compare the comments in Klaus Baer, “The Breathing Permit of Hôr: A Translation of the Apparent Source of the Book of Abraham,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 3, no. 3 (Autumn 1968): 127nn109–110.

3 Quinten Zehn Barney, The Neglected Facsimile: An Examination and Comparative Study of Facsimile No. 3 of The Book of Abraham, MA thesis, Brigham Young University (2019), 26.

4 Robert K. Ritner, The Joseph Smith Egyptian Papyri: A Complete Edition (Salt Lake City, UT: The Smith-Pettit Foundation, 2011), 139; Michael D. Rhodes, The Hor Book of Breathings: A Translation and Commentary (Provo, UT: Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 2002), 25.

5 “A Fac-Simile from the Book of Abraham,” Times and Seasons 3, no. 14 (May 16, 1842): 783; Rhodes, The Hor Book of Breathings, 24.

6 As one Egyptologist has recognized, this can be “a dangerous procedure when one is trying to use the names to prove something.” Baer, “The Breathing Permit of Hôr,” 127n110.

7 See the discussion in Barney, The Neglected Facsimile, 63–88.

8 Hugh Nibley, Abraham in Egypt, 2nd ed. (Salt Lake City and Provo, UT: Deseret Book and FARMS, 2000), 425–432.

9 Geraldine Pinch, Egyptian Mythology: A Guide to the Gods, Goddesses, and Traditions of Ancient Egypt (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2002), 149; cf. L. Kákosy, “Isis Regina,” in Studia Aegyptiaca I: Recueil d’études dédiées à Vilmos Wessetzky à l’occasion de son 65e anniversaire, ed. L. Kákosy and E. Gaál (Budapest: Éötvös Loránd Tudományegyetem, 1974), 221–230.

10 Christian Leitz, ed., Lexikon der ägyptischen Götter und Götterbezeichnungen (Leuven: Peeters, 2003), 3:40; 8:29.

11 Leitz, Lexikon der ägyptischen Götter und Götterbezeichnungen, 5:551; 8:30.

12 Leitz, Lexikon der ägyptischen Götter und Götterbezeichnungen, 5:545–546; 8:30.

13 Leitz, Lexikon der ägyptischen Götter und Götterbezeichnungen, 3:40; 8:30.

14 Leitz, Lexikon der ägyptischen Götter und Götterbezeichnungen, 4:347; 8:30.

15 Leitz, Lexikon der ägyptischen Götter und Götterbezeichnungen, 5:543–544; 8:30.

16 Leitz, Lexikon der ägyptischen Götter und Götterbezeichnungen, 4:348; 8:30.

17 Leitz, Lexikon der ägyptischen Götter und Götterbezeichnungen, 5:544; 8:30.

18 Leitz, Lexikon der ägyptischen Götter und Götterbezeichnungen, 4:348; 8:30.

19 Leitz, Lexikon der ägyptischen Götter und Götterbezeichnungen, 4:348; 8:30.

20 Siegfried Morenz, “Vorträge und Referate (Ausführliche Fassung) Ägyptische Nationalreligion und sogenannte Isismission,” Zeitschrift der Deutschen Morgenländischen Gesellschaft 111, no. 2 (1961): 434. “Als mutmaßliche Verkörperung des ‚Thronsitzes‘ ist sie dem Königtum und damit dem politischen Aspekt göttlichen Wesens sogar in besonderer Weise verbunden; ihre Rolle als Mutter des Horus und Schwester-Gattin des Osiris bindet sie denn ja auch aufs engste in das ägyptische Königtum ein, in dem der lebende König Horus verkörpert . . . eingeht.” C.f. Jan Bergman, “Isis” in Lexikon der Ägyptologie, ed. Wolfgang Helck and Eberhard Otto (Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz, 1980), 3:186–187.

21 Nibley, Abraham in Egypt, 429.

Abraham and Osiris (Facsimile 3, Figure 1)

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Book of Abraham Insight #35

Figure 1 of Facsimile 3 of the Book of Abraham was interpreted by Joseph Smith as, “Abraham sitting upon Pharaoh’s throne, by the politeness of the king; with a crown upon his head, representing the priesthood; as emblematical of the grand presidency in heaven; with the scepter of justice, and judgment in his hand.” This interpretation has clashed with those offered by Egyptologists, who have instead identified the figure as the god Osiris.1 What’s more, two Egyptologists have claimed to arrive at this interpretation from reading the hieroglyphs to the right of Figure 1.2

Robert Ritner (2011)

Michael Rhodes (2002)

ḏd-mdw ỉ(n) Wsỉr ẖnty-ỉmnty.w nb(?) ȝbḏw(?) nṯr ˁȝ r ḏ.t nḥḥ(?)

Recitation by Osiris, Foremost of the Westerners, Lord of Abydos(?), the great god forever and ever(?).

ḏd-mdw ỉ(n) Wsỉr ẖnty-ỉmnty.w mn=k, Wsỉr, Ḥr m ns.t ˁȝ.ṯ=f

Words spoken by Osiris, the Foremost of the Westerners: May you, Osiris Hor, abide at the side of the throne of greatness.

One of these Egyptologists has attempted to reproduce the hieroglyphs accompanying Figure 1.3 A comparison of his reproduction and Reuben Hedlock’s original, however, reveals some difficulties.

A side-by-side comparison of the hieroglyphs that appear next to Figure 1 in Facsimile 3 in 1842 (right) and the reconstructed hieroglyphs from Rhodes in 2002 (left).

For example, some of the glyphs in the name of Osiris in the first column on the right only bear general resemblance to attested spellings of Osiris’ name in other copies of the Book of Breathings, and other glyphs that make up the rest of the name and epithets for Osiris look quite different as well.4 “These issues combine to suggest that the translation of the characters may not be as straightforward as has been previously assumed,”  so “while one can see good reasons for . . . the use of parallel texts”5 to reconstruct illegible characters in Facsimile 3, it is also necessary to be aware of difficulties or uncertainties in reading the hieroglyphs in Hedlock’s copy of Facsimile 3.6

Nevertheless, the identity of this figure as Osiris appears reasonable based on comparable iconography. One might therefore rightly ask how or even if it is possible to reconcile Joseph Smith’s identification of this figure as Abraham.

In 1981, Latter-day Saint scholar Blake T. Ostler drew attention to possible Egyptian connections between the figures of Osiris and Abraham.7 For example, Ostler cited the work of an earlier non-Latter-day Saint German scholar drawing parallels between the parable of Lazarus and the rich man in Luke 16:19–31 and an Egyptian text known as the tale of Setne.8 As summarized more recently by another Latter-day Saint scholar, in the Egyptian text, a boy named Si-Osiris (“son of Osiris”) and his father witness “two funerals: first, that of a rich man, shrouded in fine linen, loudly lamented and abundantly honored; then, that of a poor man, wrapped in a straw mat, unaccompanied and unmourned. The father says that he would rather have the lot of the rich man than that of the pauper.”9 To show his father the folly of his thinking, Si-Osiris takes him to the underworld, where the rich man who had an elaborate funeral is punished while the pauper who had no dignified burial is glorified and exalted in the presence of the god Osiris himself. “The reason for this disparate treatment is that, at the judgment, the good deeds of the pauper outweighed the bad, but with the rich man the opposite was true.”10

The god Osiris, seated and holding symbols of kingship (a crook, flail, and scepter) and the symbol for life (the Ankh symbol), is protected by his sister-wife Isis in this relief from the tomb of Khaemhat (TT 57) from the reign of the Eighteenth Dynasty king Amenhotep III (circa 1390-1352 BC). Photo by Stephen O. Smoot.

Some scholars have argued for a Jewish borrowing and adaptation of the tale of Setne that made its way into the Gospel of Luke. Egyptologist Miriam Lichtheim introduces her translation of the tale of Setne by commenting on the “genuinely Egyptian motifs” of the nobleman who is tortured in the netherworld while the poor man is deified in the afterlife. These motifs, she insists, “formed the basis for the parable of Jesus in Luke 16, 19–31, and for the related Jewish legends, preserved in many variants in Talmudic and medieval Jewish sources.”11

Another scholar has further explored the parallels between these two traditions and notes how Lazarus being exalted in “the bosom of Abraham” in Luke’s retelling of the parable is very likely a Jewish refashioning of the imagery in the tale of Setne of the poor beggar being found exalted by the throne of Osiris. In his words, “‘Abraham’ must be a Jewish substitute for the pagan god Osiris. He is the very seat of divine authority” in the parable, “for he was originally the lord of Amnte, Osiris.”12 Even the name Lazarus is likely the Greek rendering of the Hebrew-Aramaic “God-helped-(him)” (אלעזר/לעזר), which “points back toward an Egyptian original with similar meaning: ‘Osiris-helps-him’, for instance.”13

As explained by Barney, “We are able to see how the Egyptian story has been transformed in Semitic dress. . . . The ‘bosom of Abraham’ [from the Lucan parable] represents . . . the Egyptian abode of the dead. And, most remarkably, Abraham is a Jewish substitute for the pagan god Osiris—just as is the case in Facsimiles 1 and 3.”14

There appears to be another instance of the biblical figure Abraham anciently being associated with the Egyptian god Osiris. As explained by Egyptologist John Gee, an Egyptian funerary formula found in several sources was later syncretized with Jewish figures in its later renderings into Greek and Coptic. The short Demotic version of the formula reads: “May his soul live in the presence of Osiris-Sokar the great god, the lord of Abydos” (ˁnḫ pȝ by=f m bȝḥ wsir skr pȝ nṯr ˁȝ nb ỉbḏw). In Greek this formula was later rendered as: “Rest his soul in the bosom of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob” (ἀναπαύσον τὴν ψυχὴν αὐτοὺ εἰς κόλπις Αβρααμ κ(αὶ) Ισαακ κ(αὶ) Ιακωβ). In this reformulation, “The expression ‘live in the presence of Osiris’ has been replaced by the expression ‘rest in Abraham’s bosom.”15

We cannot know exactly why Abraham was viewed by some anciently as a substitute for the Egyptian god Osiris.16 Whatever the case, “there are enough instances where Abraham appears in contexts normally occupied by Osiris that we must conclude the Egyptians saw some sort of connection.”17 It is especially noteworthy, as seen above, that Abraham appears as a substitute for Osiris in ways associated with the judgment of the dead or a postmortem declaration of the deceased’s worthiness. This in turn might shed some insight into what might otherwise appear as Joseph Smith’s incongruous interpretation of this figure in Facsimile 3.

Further Reading

Kevin L. Barney, “The Facsimiles and Semitic Adaptation of Existing Sources,” in Astronomy, Papyrus, and Covenant, ed. John Gee and Brian M. Hauglid (Provo, UT: FARMS, 2005), 107–130.

Blake T. Ostler, “Abraham: An Egyptian Connection,” FARMS Report (1981).

Footnotes

 

1 See for instance Klaus Baer, “The Breathing Permit of Hôr: A Translation of the Apparent Source of the Book of Abraham,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 3, no. 3 (Autumn 1968): 126; Michael D. Rhodes, The Hor Book of Breathings: A Translation and Commentary (Provo, UT: FARMS, 2002), 23.

2 Robert K. Ritner, The Joseph Smith Egyptian Papyri, A Complete Edition: P. JS 1–4 and the Hypocephalus of Sheshonq (Salt Lake City, UT: The Smith–Pettit Foundation, 2011), 139; Rhodes, The Hor Book of Breathings, 25.

3 Rhodes, The Hor Book of Breathings, 24.

4 Quinten Zehn Barney, The Neglected Facsimile: An Examination and Comparative Study of Facsimile No. 3 of The Book of Abraham, MA thesis, Brigham Young University (2019), 45, 121–122.

5 Barney, The Neglected Facsimile, 49.

6 Barney, The Neglected Facsimile, 45. Ritner’s hesitation in his reading of the hieroglyphs in Facsimile 3, as well as the multiple disagreements with Rhodes’ own reading of the same, further indicates the difficulty in reading these glyphs.

7 Blake T. Ostler, “Abraham: An Egyptian Connection,” FARMS Report (1981).

8 Ostler, “Abraham,” 3–8, citing Hugo Greßmann, Vom reichen Mann und armen Lazarus: Eine literargeschichtliche Studie (Berlin: Königliche Akademie der Wissenschaften, 1918).

9 Kevin L. Barney, “The Facsimiles and Semitic Adaptation of Existing Sources,” in Astronomy, Papyrus, and Covenant, ed. John Gee and Brian M. Hauglid (Provo, UT: FARMS, 2005), 120–121.

10 Barney, “The Facsimiles and Semitic Adaptation of Existing Sources,” 121.

11 Miriam Lichtheim, Ancient Egyptian Literature, Volume III: The Late Period (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1980), 125–126; cf. Robert K. Ritner, “The Adventures of Setna and Si-Osire (Setna II),” in The Literature of Ancient Egypt: An Anthology of Stories, Instructions, Stelae, Autobiographies, and Poetry, ed. William Kelly Simpson, 3rd ed. (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2003), 470–471.

12 K. Grobel, “…Whose name was Neves,” New Testament Studies 10 (1964): 380.

13 Grobel, “…Whose name was Neves,” 381.

14 Barney, “The Facsimiles and Semitic Adaptation of Existing Sources,” 121.

15 John Gee, “A New Look at the ˁnẖ pȝ by Formula,” in Actes du IXe congrès international des études démotiques, Paris, 31 août–3 septembre 2005, ed. Ghislaine Widmer and Didier Devauchelle (Paris: Institut Français D’Archaéologie Orientale, 2009), 143.

16 It should be noted that the ancient association between Abraham and Osiris is not the only attested instance of Judeo-Egyptian syncretization. As Gary Rendsburg has pointed out, “the biblical writer utilized the venerable Horus myth in order to present Moses as the equal to Pharaoh.” As seen in many parallels between the two figures, “the young Moses [in the biblical account] is akin to the young Horus, the latter a mythic equal of the living Pharaoh.” Gary A. Rendsburg, “Moses as Equal to Pharaoh,” in Text, Artifact, and Image: Revealing Ancient Israelite Religion, ed. Gary Beckman and Theodore J. Lewis (Providence, RI: Brown University, Brown Judaic Studies, 2010), 201–219, quote at 208.

17 Kerry Muhlestein, “Abraham, Isaac, and Osiris-Michael: The Use of Biblical Figures in Egyptian Religion, A Survey,” in Achievements and Problems of Modern Egyptology: Proceedings of the International Conference Held in Moscow on September 29–October 2, 2009, ed. Galina A. Belova (Moscow: Russian Academy of Sciences, Center for Egyptological Studies, 2009), 251.

Facsimile 3: Judgment Scene vs. Presentation Scene

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Book of Abraham Insight #34

Facsimile 3 of the Book of Abraham has been identified in the past by Egyptologists as “a constantly recurring scene in Egyptian literature, best known from the 125th chapter of the Book of the Dead. It represents the judgment of the dead before the throne of Osiris.”1 Based on comparable iconography from other Egyptian funerary texts, this understanding of Facsimile 3 has been prevalent among Egyptologists.2 “The formal judgment of the dead contained in BD spell 125 . . . involves the deceased supplicant making a ‘negative confession’ asserting his or her faultless behavior on earth in the presence of forty-two gods assembled in the Hall of the Two Truths, while the heart is weighted against the feather of Maat.”3 This judgment scene very frequently is depicted as transpiring before the presence of the god Osiris, who is often shown sitting on a throne accompanied by his sisters/wives Isis and/or Nephthys.

Facsimile 3 of the Book of Abraham as it first appeared in print on May 16, 1842 in the Times and Seasons. Image via the Joseph Smith Papers website.

Although this interpretation of Facsimile 3 has become commonplace among scholars, some have raised considerable objections to this explanation. Egyptologist John Gee, for instance, has voiced problems with viewing Facsimile 3 as a judgment scene.4 “The problems with the theory that Facsimile 3 is the vignette from Book of the Dead 125 can be most readily shown” by what is missing in Facsimile 3.5 Several ancient copies of the Book of the Dead either visually illustrate or textually describe what the ancient Egyptians themselves considered the essential elements needed for a judgment scene. This includes, according to one copy of the Book of the Dead from the first century AD:

The forty-two gods [in front of] the deceased above the hall of the truths; a figure of Hathor, [lady] of the underworld carrying a was-scepter, protecting the man, while the two arms of the scale are straight and Thoth is on its left, to the right of its [. . .] while Horus speaks, and Anubis grasps it on the side on which are the two truths (Maats) while he is opposite on the other side of the scale. Thoth reads the writings since a scroll is in his hand [. . .Ammut] in whose hand is a knife and before whom are a sword and a scepter, Anubis holding his hand. A lotus with two supports on which are the four sons of Horus. A chapel in which Osiris sits on his throne there being an offering table with a lotus before him. Isis is behind him praising, and Nephthys is behind him praising.6

“If we compare this description with Facsimile 3,” observes Gee, “we find that the description does not match at all.”

Facsimile 3 lacks the forty-two gods. It is missing Hathor holding the was-scepter. There is no balance-scale. Thoth is missing from the left side of the nonexistent scale. Horus is missing. The figure generally identified with Anubis is not grasping the side of the scale, but the waist of the man. Since Thoth is not depicted, he cannot be shown reading anything. Ammut is absent, along with the knife, sword, and scepter. The lotus is missing the four sons of Horus atop it. Though Osiris is shown sitting, he is not depicted seated within any chapel. Almost all of the elements which the Egyptians thought were important for the scene are conspicuous by their absence from Facsimile 3. Significantly, these elements are present in a vignette accompanying Book of the Dead, chapter 125, found among the Joseph Smith Papyri, as well as other copies of vignettes of Book of the Dead, chapter 125. These elements are present in all the judgment scenes that the critics would compare with the Facsimile 3. The elements of the judgment scene as listed in the Demotic Book of the Dead are consistent with those of earlier judgment scenes. Their absence from Facsimile 3 indicates that Facsimile 3 is not a judgment scene and is not directly associated with Book of the Dead 125.7

So if Facsimile 3 of the Book of Abraham is most likely not a judgment scene from Book of the Dead Spell 125, then what might it be? Recently, Quinten Barney performed a study of Facsimile 3 which compared it with similar throne scenes depicting the god Osiris from extant copies of the ancient Egyptian Book of Breathings.8 Barney categorized four types of throne scenes (Invocation, Weighing of the Heart, Presentation, and hybrid) from the Book of Breathings and compared them with Facsimile 3.9 After careful comparison, Barney concluded that while “Facsimile No. 3 does have much in common with those various throne scenes found in these texts, including those scenes from the Book of Breathings, . . . several challenges present themselves as we begin to try classifying the Facsimile into one of the four categories of throne scenes presented above.”10

A depiction of the judgment of the dead from the Book of the Dead of Taruma (P. Vindob. Aeg. 65; Ptolemaic Period). Image via the Österreichische Nationalbibliothek.

In fact, when compared with other throne scenes from the Book of Breathings, Facsimile 3 contains a number of anomalous artistic elements that are not standard in other illustrations, and its original placement on the papyrus scroll obtained by Joseph Smith is likewise not standard for this type of text. So while “the type of scene with which Facsimile No. 3 compares best is that of the Presentation scene, which features the deceased being introduced into the presence of Osiris by one or more other Egyptian deities, . . . there are several challenges with placing Facsimile No. 3 into this category.”11

If Facsimile 3 is indeed closer to a presentation scene than a judgment scene, then it might have a plausible connection with astronomy. “Parallel scenes on Egyptian temples are explicitly labeled as initiations. Known initiation rituals from Greco-Roman Egypt include instruction in astronomy as part of the initiation.”12  This converges with Joseph Smith’s interpretation that this scene depicts Abraham “reasoning upon the principles of Astronomy, in the king’s court.”

A depiction of the judgment of the dead in the Book of Breathings of Kerasher (P. BM EA 9995; Roman Period). Image via the British Museum website.

Until further work can shed more light on this fascinating but complex matter, we will have to be content for now that “although Facsimile No. 3 was attached to the Hor Book of Breathings, it is anything but a common funerary scene from that collection of texts.”13

Further Reading

Quinten Barney, “The Neglected Facsimile: An Examination and Comparative Study of Facsimile No. 3 of The Book of Abraham,” MA thesis, Brigham Young University, 2019.

John Gee, “Facsimile 3 and Book of the Dead 125,” in Astronomy, Papyrus, and Covenant, ed. John Gee and Brian M. Hauglid (Provo, Utah: FARMS, 2005), 95–105.

Footnotes

1 Michael D. Rhodes, “Facsimiles from the Book of Abraham,” in The Encyclopedia of Mormonism, ed. Daniel H. Ludlow, 4 Vols. (New York: Macmillan, 1992), 1:136.

2 See for instance Franklin S. Spalding, Joseph Smith, Jr., As a Translator (Salt Lake City: Arrow, 1912), 24, 26; Robert K. Ritner, The Joseph Smith Egyptian Papyri, A Complete Edition: P. JS 1–4 and the Hypocephalus of Sheshonq (Salt Lake City, UT: The Smith-Pettit Foundation, 2011), 138. Klaus Baer opined in 1968 that Facsimile 3 was “a scene [that] comes from a mortuary papyrus and is similar to, but not identical with scenes showing the judgment of the deceased before Osiris” in Book of the Dead Spell 125. Klaus Baer, “The Breathing Permit of Hôr: A Translation of the Apparent Source of the Book of Abraham,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 3, no. 3 (Autumn 1968): 126.

3 Peter F. Dorman, “The Origins and Early Development of the Book of the Dead,” in Book of the Dead: Becoming God in Ancient Egypt, ed. Foy Scalf (Chicago, Ill.: Oriental Institute, 2017), 39.

4 John Gee, “Facsimile 3 and Book of the Dead 125,” in Astronomy, Papyrus, and Covenant, ed. John Gee and Brian M. Hauglid (Provo, Utah: FARMS, 2005), 95–105.

5 Gee, “Facsimile 3 and Book of the Dead 125,” 99.

6 Gee, “Facsimile 3 and Book of the Dead 125,” 100, citing P. Bibliothèque Nationale E 140 1/16—24, Franz Lexa, Das demotische Totenbuch der Pariser Nationalbibliothek (Papyrus des Pamonthes) (Leipzig: Hinrichs, 1910), ix, 6—8, plate I.

7 Gee, “Facsimile 3 and Book of the Dead 125,” 100–101.

8 Quinten Barney, “The Neglected Facsimile: An Examination and Comparative Study of Facsimile No. 3 of The Book of Abraham,” MA thesis, Brigham Young University, 2019.

9 Barney, “The Neglected Facsimile,” 70–88.

10 Barney, “The Neglected Facsimile,” 81.

11 Barney, “The Neglected Facsimile,” 81.

12 John Gee, An Introduction to the Book of Abraham (Salt Lake City and Provo, UT: Deseret Book and Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 2017), 153.

13 Barney, “The Neglected Facsimile,” 88. See further Hugh Nibley, “All the Court’s A Stage: Facsimile 3, A Royal Mummying,” in Abraham in Egypt, 2nd ed. (Salt Lake City and Provo, UT: Deseret Book and FARMS, 2000), 382–465.

God Sitting Upon His Throne (Facsimile 2, Figure 7)

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Book of Abraham Insight #33

Figure 7 in Facsimile 2 is identified as follows: “Represents God sitting upon his throne, revealing through the heavens the grand Key-words of the Priesthood; as, also, the sign of the Holy Ghost unto Abraham, in the form of a dove.” Appearing in several other ancient Egyptian hypocephali,1 the sitting personage in Figure 7 has been described by one Egyptologist as “a polymorphic god sitting on his throne” with “the back of him is bird-form, while one of his arms is raised [in] the attribution” of the gods Min or Amun “and hold[ing] forth a flagellum.” Standing next to him is a “falcon- or snake-headed snake” believed to perhaps be the minor deity Nehebkau, who “offers the wedjat-eye.”2

Another Egyptologist has similarly described this figure as “a seated ithyphallic god with a hawk’s tail, holding aloft a flail. This is a form of Min . . . perhaps combined with Horus, as the hawk’s tail would seem to indicate. Before the god is what appears to be a bird presenting him with a Wedjat-eye.”3 In some hypocephali the ancient Egyptians themselves simply identified this figure as, variously, the “Great God” (nṯr ˁȝ), the “Lord of Life” (nb ˁnḫ), or the “Lord of All” (nb r ḏr).4 This first epithet is significant for Joseph Smith’s interpretation, since in one ancient Egyptian text the divine figure Iaho Sabaoth (Lord of Hosts) is also afforded the epithet “the Great God” (pȝ nṯr ˁȝ).5

Since some Egyptologists have suggested this figure is the god Min or Amun, who was often syncretized with Min,6 it would be worth exploring what we know about this deity, even if this identification wasn’t explicitly made by the ancient Egyptians themselves. One of Egypt’s oldest gods, Min was worshipped as early as the Pre-Dynastic Period (circa pre-3000 BC). Although he assumed multiple attributes over millennia,7 Min is perhaps best known as “the god of the regenerative, procreative forces of nature”8; that is, as a sort of fertility god who was often depicted as the premier manifestation of “male sexual potency.”9 He is frequently shown raising his arm to the square while holding a flail, symbols or gestures associated with kingship, displaying power, and the ability to protect from enemies.10

Min is also very often, though not always,11 depicted in hypocephali with an erect phallus (ithyphallic), which Egyptologists have interpreted as either a symbol of, on the one hand, sexual potency, fertility, (pro)creation, and rejuvenation, or, on the other hand, aggression, power, and potency.12 One Egyptologist has also interpreted depictions of Min with his raised arm and erect phallus as a sign of him being “a protector of the temple” whose role was to “repulse negative influences from the ‘profane surroundings’” of the sacred space of the temple.13

Min2
Worshipped extensively throughout Egypt, the god Min was represented in both two-dimensional and three-dimensional art. Image on the left: relief of Min at the Karnak temple via Wikipedia. Image on the right: a small wood amulet of Min from the Late Period–Ptolemaic Period (circa 664–30 B.C.) via the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

That Min would assume the roles of divine procreator who gives life and divine king who upholds the cosmos is understandable from the viewpoint of ancient Egyptian religion.14 As Ian Shaw explains,

Although Egyptian art shied away from depicting the sexual act, it had no such qualms about the depiction of the erect phallus. . . . The three oldest colossal religious statues in Egyptian history, found by [William Flinders] Petrie in the earliest strata of the temple of Min at Koptos . . . where essentially large ithyphallic representations, probably of Min. . . . This celebration of the phallus appears to be directly related to the Egyptians’ concerns with the creation (and sustaining) of the universe, in which the king was thought to play a significant role—which was no doubt one of the reasons why the Egyptian state would have been concerned to ensure that the ithyphallic figures continued to be important elements in many cults.15

Christina Riggs similarly comments that “near naked goddesses, gods with erections, and cults for virile animals, like bulls, make sense in [ancient Egyptian] religious imagery because they captured the miracle of life creating new life.”16 For this reason Min was “regarded as the creator god par excellence” in ancient Egypt, as fertility and (male) sexuality was “subsumed under the general notion of creativity.”17

Figure 7 in Facsimile 2 was either originally drawn or copied somewhat crudely (without access to the original it is impossible to tell), and so it is not entirely clear if the seated figure is ithyphallic or if he has one arm at his side with the other arm clearly raised in the air. Although Egyptologists have tended to interpret Figure 7 in Facsimile 2 as ithyphallic—and that seems to be how it is depicted—it should be kept in mind, as noted above (and seen below), that Min is not always depicted as such in hypocephali, so he need not necessarily be viewed as ithyphallic in Facsimile 2. In any case, there is nothing to suggest anything pornographic or sexually illicit in ancient ithyphallic depictions of Min.

But what about the figure assumed to be Nehebkau offering Min the Wedjat-eye?18 Depicted most commonly as a snake or snake-headed man19—but sometimes as a falcon (as in Facsimile 2)20—in Chapter 125 of the Book of the Dead, Nehebkau is named as one of the judges of the dead.21 In Chapter 149 of the Book of the Dead he is associated with Min and other deities as one who assures the dead will be rejuvenated and resurrected with a perfected body.22 In the Pyramid Texts he feeds the deceased king and acts as a divine messenger.23 As such, he “was considered to be a provider of life and nourishment.”24 Together Nehebkau and Min ”were symbolic of life-force and procreative forces of nature.”25

In different hypocephali the figure believed to be Nehebkau is depicted as either a snake (top) or a falcon (bottom) who is either presenting the Wedjat-eye to Min on his throne (top) or is receiving the Wedjat-eye from Min on his throne (bottom). Images from Mekis (2013), 92.

In ancient Egyptian, wḏȝ carries the meaning of “hale, uninjured,” and “well-being.”26 The word can describe the health or wholeness of the physical body, the soul, or moral character.27 The wḏȝt-eye Nehebkau presents to Min (or vice-versa) was envisioned by the ancient Egyptians as “whole” or “sound” eye of Horus and had an apotropaic function in ancient Egyptian religion.28 It was, in short, “the symbol of all good gifts”29 and a symbol for “the miracle of [the] restoration” and renewal of the body.30

This fuller understanding helps make sense of Joseph Smith’s interpretation of this figure and plausibly situates such it in an ancient Egyptian context.31

Further Reading

Hugh Nibley and Michael D. Rhodes, One Eternal Round, The Collected Works of Hugh Nibley: Volume 19 (Salt Lake City and Provo, UT: Deseret Book and FARMS, 2010), 304–322.

Michael D. Rhodes, “The Joseph Smith Hypocephalus…20 Years Later,” FARMS Preliminary Paper (1997).

Footnotes

 

1 Tamás Mekis, Hypocephali, PhD diss. (Eötvös Loránd University, 2013), 1:91–93.

2 Mekis, Hypocephali, 1:91.

3 Michael D. Rhodes, “The Joseph Smith Hypocephalus…20 Years Later,” FARMS Preliminary Paper (1997), 11.

4 John Gee, “Towards an Interpretation of Hypocephali,” in “Le Lotus Qui Sort de Terre”: Mélanges Offerts À Edith Varga, ed. Hedvig Győry (Budapest: Bulletin du Musée Hongrois des Beaux-Arts, 2001), 334; Mekis, Hypocephali, 1:91n484.

5 John Gee, “The Structure of Lamp Divination,” in Acts of the Seventh International Conference of Demotic Studies, Copenhagen, 23–27 August 1999, ed. Kim Ryholt (Copenhagen: The Carsten Neibuhr Institute of Near Eastern Studies, University of Copenhagen, 2002), 211–212.

6 Christian Leitz, ed., Lexikon der ägyptischen Götter und Götterbezeichnungen (Leuven: Peeters, 2002), 3:290–291.

7 Leitz, Lexikon der ägyptischen Götter und Götterbezeichnungen, 3:288–291.

8 Rhodes, “The Joseph Smith Hypocephalus…20 Years Later,” 11.

9 Eugene Romanosky, “Min,” in The Ancient Gods Speak: A Guide to Egyptian Religion, ed. Donald B. Redford (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), 218.

10 Leitz, ed., Lexikon der ägyptischen Götter und Götterbezeichnungen, 3:288; Jorge Ogdon, “Some Notes on the Iconography of Min,” Bulletin of the Egyptological Seminar 7 (1985/6): 29–41; Romanosky, “Min,” 219; Toby A. H. Wilkinson, Early Dynastic Egypt (London: Routledge, 1999), 161; Manfred Lurker, An Illustrated Dictionary of the Gods and Symbols of Ancient Egypt (London: Thames and Hudson, 1980), 52. Richard H. Wilkinson, Symbol and Magic in Egyptian Art (London: Thames and Hudson, 1994), 196; cf. The Complete Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Egypt (London: Thames and Hudson, 2003), 115; “Ancient Near Eastern Raised-Arm Figures and the Iconography of the Egyptian God Min,” Bulletin of the Egyptological Seminar 11 (1991–2): 109–118.

11 Mekis, Hypocephali, 1:92.

12 Ogdon, “Some Notes on the Iconography of Min,” 29–41; Joachim Quack, “The So-Called Pantheos: On Polymorphic Deities in Late Egyptian Religion,” in Aegyptus et Pannonia III: Acta Symposii anno 2004, ed. Hedvig Győry (Budapest: Comité de l’Égypte Ancienne de l’Association Amicale Hongroise-Égyptienne, 2006), 176.

13 Ogdon, “Some Notes on the Iconography of Min,” 33.

14 Min was often syncretized with both Horus and Amun, two gods closely associated with kingship, and himself bore the epithet “Min the King.” Leitz, Lexikon der ägyptischen Götter und Götterbezeichnungen, 3:290–291.

15 Ian Shaw, Ancient Egypt: A Very Short Introduction (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), 133.

16 Christina Riggs, Ancient Egyptian Art and Architecture: A Very Short Introduction (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014), 89.

17 K. Van der Toorn, “Min,” in Dictionary of Deities and Demons in the Bible, ed. Karel van der Toorn, Bob Becking, and Pieter W. van der Horst, 2nd ed. (Leiden: Brill, 1999), 557. This can be further seen in the Pyramid Texts, which explicitly links male sexual virility with the creation of the cosmos (in this case the birth of Shu and Tefnut from the primordial creator god Atum). PT 527 in James Allen, trans., The Ancient Egyptian Pyramid Texts, ed. Peter Der Manuelian (Atlanta, GA: Society of Biblical Literature, 2005), 164.

18 Alan W. Shorter, “The God Nehebkau,” The Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 21, no. 1 (1935): 41–48; Richard H. Wilkinson, The Complete Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Egypt (London: Thames and Hudson, 2003), 224–225.

19 Wilkinson, The Complete Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Egypt, 224; Leitz, Lexikon der ägyptischen Götter und Götterbezeichnungen, 4:274.

20 Mekis, Hypocephali, 1:92n486; Leitz, Lexikon der ägyptischen Götter und Götterbezeichnungen, 4:274.

21 Raymond O. Faulkner, trans., The Ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead (London: The British Museum Press, 2010), 32; Karl Richard Lepsius, Das Todtenbuch der Ägypter nach dem hieroglyphischen Papyrus in Turin mit einem Vorworte zum ersten Male Herausgegeben (Leipzig, Germany: G. Wigand, 1842), Pl. XLVII.

22 Faulkner, The Ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead, 137; Lepsius, Das Todtenbuch der Ägypter, Pl. LXXI.

23 PT 264, PT 609 in Allen, The Ancient Egyptian Pyramid Texts, 78, 230.

24 Rhodes, “The Joseph Smith Hypocephalus…20 Years Later,” 12.

25 Luca Miatello, “The Hypocephalus of Takerheb in Firenze and the Scheme of the Solar Cycle,” Studien zur Altägyptischen Kultur 37 (2008): 285.

26 Raymond O. Faulkner, A Concise Dictionary of Middle Egyptian (Oxford: Griffith Institute, 1962), 74–75.

27 Adolf Erman and Hermann Grapow, Wörterbuch der aegyptischen Sprache (Berlin: Akademie Verlag, 1958), 1:399–400.

28 Geraldine Pinch, Egyptian Mythology: A Guide to the Gods, Goddesses, and Traditions of Ancient Egypt (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2002), 131–132.

29 Rhodes, “The Joseph Smith Hypocephalus…20 Years Later,” 11.

30 Hugh Nibley and Michael D. Rhodes, One Eternal Round, The Collected Works of Hugh Nibley: Volume 19 (Salt Lake City and Provo, UT: Deseret Book and FARMS, 2010), 314.

31 See further Nibley and Rhodes, One Eternal Round, 304–322.