Can We Trust the Book of Abraham?

A Questionable Translation?
Perhaps the most powerful evidence related to the trustworthiness of Joseph Smith can be found in of the Mormon Scripture known as the Book of Abraham. In July of 1835, an Irishman named Michael Chandler arrived in Kirtland Ohio (then the home of the Mormons) with an exhibit of four Egyptian mummies and papyri. The papyri contained Egyptian hieroglyphics, a form of ancient writing that was unreadable in America at the time.

Joseph Smith was given permission to look at the papyri scrolls in the exhibit, and upon seeing them he declared that “one of the rolls contained the writings of Abraham, another the writings of Joseph of Egypt” (History of the Church, Vol. 2: 236).

Members of the Church raised money and bought the entire collection. Seven years later, Joseph finished translating the scroll and called it the Book of Abraham (the book of Joseph was never translated). The papyri were lost soon after this and were thought to have been destroyed in the “Great Chicago Fire” in 1871. As a result, there was no way to validate Joseph’s translation at a later date, after Egyptian hieroglyphics were deciphered by archeological linguists in the years to follow. If the papyri could be relocated and translated in light of later understanding of hieroglyphics, we would at least be able to prove or disprove the abilities of Joseph as a divinely inspired prophet of God. Without the discovery of the lost papyri, the Pearl of Great Price, (a collection of writings which contained the book of Abraham), was canonized as scripture by the LDS Church in October of 1880.

The Papyri are Rediscovered
Amazingly (and to everyone’s surprise), the papyri were rediscovered in one of the vault rooms of the New York’s metropolitan Museum of Art in 1966. The Mormon Church validated the authenticity of these papyri, and the Deseret News of Salt Lake City on Nov. 27, 1967 acknowledged their rediscovery. On the back of the papyri were ‘drawings of a temple and maps of the Kirtland, Ohio area,’ so there could be no doubt that this was the original document from which Joseph Smith translated the book of Abraham. The Mormon community celebrated the discovery. Hugh Nibley, then professor of ancient scripture at Brigham Young University, commented in the journal BYU Studies:

‘(the discovery of the Book of Abraham papyri is) a far more momentous transaction than might appear on the surface, for it brought back into play for the first time since the angel Moroni took back the golden plates a tangible link between the worlds.’ (Winter 1968, p. 171)

With the papyri rediscovered and Egyptian hieroglyphics decipherable for over 70 years, the Mormon world awaited confirmation of the true status and ability of Joseph Smith, the prophet who said that he had the gift of divine prophesy and translation. Mormons hoped that the rediscovery and retranslation would prove the contents of the Book of Abraham, and therefore validate Joseph’s ability to also translate the Book of Mormon. One clearly hinged on the other. It was hoped that the Book of Abraham would vindicate Joseph Smith as a true prophet of God. The entire Mormon world was holding its breath in anticipation. What would the scholars say? Would they finally confirm what the Mormon Prophets had been saying for decades? Was Joseph Smith indeed a divinely inspired man who receieved an accurate translation of these ancient papyri from God? The rediscovered papyri would answer these questions once and for all.

Both LDS and non-LDS scholars agree that these pieces of papyrus scroll we have today were those possessed by Joseph Smith and used by him to produce the Book of Abraham. A positive identification is possible because one of the rediscovered scroll pieces, now called Papyrus Joseph Smith 1 (PJS 1), matches the picture in the Book of Abraham called Facsimile No. 1. According to the Book of Abraham chapter 1, verses 12-14, this picture or ‘representation’ came at the beginning of the ‘record’ (papyrus scroll).

The Illustrations are Examined
Scholars poured over the papyri, examining their contents and illustrations, and comparing these to the translation of Joseph Smith. Joseph copied three drawings from the Egyptian scrolls while creating the Book of Abraham, and he labeled them Facsimile No. 1, No. 2, and No. 3. He placed these drawings in the Book of Abraham and provided explanations of what they represented. For years, Egyptologists had been looking at these illustrations and arguing that Joseph’s interpretations were false. Scholars recognized similarities between the drawings in the Book of Abraham and paintings that had been discovered in Egyptian tombs. Particularly in Facsimile No. 1, which bore a striking resemblance to extant paintings of embalming ceremonies involving the Egyptian God of embalming, Anubis.


There were some notable differences, however. The head of the character that Joseph drew standing over the table was not the head of a jackal as it should have been in order to belong to the family of Anubis renderings. In addition, this figure was holding what Joseph Described as a knife, something that was also not consistent with the Anubis family of drawings. Egyptologists maintained, however, that the Facsimiles looked like a common configurations that might be found in an Egyptian “Book of the Dead”.

Mormons, in defense of their book of scripture, maintained that the resemblances of these facsimiles were not sufficient to prove that Joseph Smith was false in his translation. But now, with the rediscovery of the papyri in 1966, Mormons hoped to vindicate Joseph completely. The rediscovered papyri contained not only text, but the same drawings that Joseph had drawn into the Book of Abraham! It was now possible to absolutely determine whether or not Joseph Smith was a true prophet of God.

Comparing Joseph to the Original
Experts examined the illustrations on the papyri and looked closely at Facsimile No. 1. They discovered that the complete illustration was not actually in the original papyri. There were two critical areas missing in the original that Joseph drew into Facsimile No. 1 on his own. Can you guess which two areas were missing on the original? The areas related to the head and hands of the Anubis type character, the very areas that made experts suspicious for all those years! It was now obvious to Egyptologists that Joseph reconstructed the Facsimile on his own and along the way, revealed a complete lack of understanding of Egyptian practice and theology.

It was starting to look like Joseph had added something that was obviously inconsistent with the papyri contents, but only a finished translation of the papyri would determine this with complete certainty, so the translation began in earnest. Joseph Smith said that Facsimile No. 1 depicted a bird as the ‘Angel of the Lord’ with ‘Abraham fastened upon an altar,’ ‘being offered up as a sacrifice by a false priest. The pots under the altar were various gods ‘Elkenah, Libnah, Mahmackrah, Korash, Pharaoh,’ etc. But Egyptologists translated to original papyri and discovered that it was ‘an embalming scene showing the deceased lying on a lion-couch.’ Facsimile No. 1 actually ‘depicts the mythical embalming and resurrection of Osiris, Egyptian god of the underworld. Osiris was slain by his jealous brother Set, who cut up his body into 16 pieces and scattered them….The jackal-headed god Anubis is shown embalming the body of Osiris on the traditional lion-headed couch so that he might come back to life…’ (‘…by his own hand upon papyrus’ Institute for Religious Research, Grand Rapids, Mich. 1992, p. 62)

The Truth of the Translations
In the original papyri, Facsimile No. 1 is attached to hieroglyphics from which Joseph derived the beginning of the book of Abraham which begins with the words, ‘In the Land of the Chaldeans, at the residence of my father, I, Abraham, saw that it was needful for me to obtain another place of residence’(1:1). In reality, however, the hieroglyphics translate as, ‘Osiris shall be conveyed into the Great Pool of Khons — and likewise Osiris Hor, justified, born to Tikhebyt, justified — after his arms have been placed on his heart and the Breathing permit (which [Isis] made and has writing on its inside and outside) has been wrapped in royal linen and placed under his left arm near his heart; the rest of the mummy-bandages should be wrapped over it. The man for whom this book was copied will breath forever and ever as the bas of the gods do.’

The document is not the writing of Abraham in Egypt, but is instead the opening portion of an Egyptian “Shait en Sensen”, or “Book of Breathings”, a late funerary text that grew out of the earlier and more complex “Book of the Dead.” This particular scroll was examined by experts (including Mormon experts who agreed with the findings) and after analyzing handwriting, spelling, content, and other contextual issues, determined that the papyri was written sometime during the late Ptolemaic or early Roman period (circa 50 B.C. to A.D. 50). This is problematic for Mormons, however, for if the papyri are only about 2,000 years old, they are far too “new” to have been ‘written on by the hand of Abraham ‘.

There is another Facsimile in the Book of Abraham that further reveals yet more mistranslation on the part of Joseph Smith. Facsimile No. 2, as it is explained by Joseph Smith and included in the Pearl of Great Price, contains different scenes which Joseph Smith interpreted. They vary considerably in content: ‘Kolob, signifying the first creation, nearest to the celestial, or the residence of God.’ ‘Stands next to Kolob, called by the Egyptians Oliblish, which is the next grand governing creation near to the celestial or the place where God resides.’ ‘God, sitting upon his throne, clothed with power and authority.’ ‘…this is one of the governing planets also, and is said by the Egyptians to be the Sun, and to borrow its light from Kolob through the medium of Kae-e-vanrash, which is the grand Key…’

But again, the experts discovered that Joseph’s translation did not match the evidence. ‘It is actually a rather common funerary amulet termed a hypocephalus, so-called because it was placed under (hypo) a mummy’s head (cephalus). Its purpose was to magically keep the deceased warm and to protect the body from desecration by grave robbers.’ (Ibid, pg. 104). This type of amulet was very common, and several similar amulets have been recovered and translated over the years, confirming their nature and their contradiction with Joseph’s translations. None of the content translated by Joseph appears on the amulet. It is simply not what Joseph claimed it to be.


Joseph Smith claimed that Facsimile No. 3 depicted “Abraham sitting upon Pharaoh’s throne, by the politeness of the king, with a crown upon his head, representing the Priesthood…King Pharaoh, whose name is given in the characters above his head…Signifies Abraham in Egypt…Olimlah, a slave belonging to the prince…” But this is contrary to the true translation of the hieroglyphic. The facsimile actually depicts ‘the deceased being led before Osiris, god of the dead, and behind the enthroned Osiris stands his wife Isis.’ (Joseph Smith Among the Egyptians , by Wesley P. Walters 1973 pg. 29)

The Text is Fallacious, Even When There is No Facsimile
To make matters worse, areas of text retranslation identified by church documents for generations prior to the discovery of the papyri also conflict with the true translations. Not only is the translation related to the facsimiles untrue, but every other portion of the papyri also betrays the false nature of Joseph’s translation.

This piece of papyri, designated Papyrus Joseph Smith 11 (PJS 11), was originally connected to PJS 1, from which Facsimile No. 1 was derived. This was verified by Dr. Klaus Baer, an Egyptologist at the University of Chicago who wrote: ‘They clearly adjoin as proposed . . . . Papyrus fibers are always irregular and can be used (much like finger prints) to check whether fragments come from the same sheet; in this case the horizontal fibers on the left and right edges of Papyrus Joseph Smith I and XI, respectively, match exactly.’ (From Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, Autumn 1968, pp. 133, 134). This portion of the papyri has been translated by Professor Richard Parker of Brown University (Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, Summer 1968, p. 98):

(line1) … this great pool of Khonsu …(line 2)… [Osiris Hor, justified], born of Taykhebyt, a man likewise… (line 3)… After (his) two arms are [fast]ened to his breast, one wraps the Book of Breathings, which is… (line 4)… with writing both inside and outside of it, with royal linen, it being placed [at] his left arm… (line 5)… near his heart, this having been done at his… (line 6)… wrapping and outside it. If this book be recited for him, then… (line 7)… he will breathe like the soul[s of gods] for ever and… (line 8)… ever. (the left side of the fragment begins the series of spells to be recited).

Even before the original papyri was rediscovered, the Mormon Church had been in possession of a series of original Book of Abraham Translation Manuscripts. These manuscripts were used by Joseph Smith as his translation notes and several had a mysterious set of symbols located in the left margin. For years these were understood to be the Egyptian hieroglyphics from which all the English text (to the right each page) were translated.

Now, with the discovery of PJS 11, experts finally located the series of hieroglyphics that had been seen on the translation Manuscript for years. The Egyptian characters in the left margin of page 3 of the original Book of Abraham translation manuscript (above right) match up exactly with a succession of Egyptian characters from the upper right column of a section of the PJS 11 Book of Abraham scroll. In essence, the original translation notes have a succession of Egyptian characters from the papyrus scroll copied down the left margin, indicating that the Book of Abraham is supposed to have been translated from this section of the papyrus scroll. But, as you might have expected by now, none of the true translation of the papyri matches the translation of Joseph Smith in any way.

The results of modern examination of the papyri did not provide the confirmation that the Mormons were hoping for, but it did confirm something. Mormons had accepted the Book of Abraham for decades, believing the church’s assertion that Joseph Smith translated it by the power of God as he had claimed. This manner of translation, divinely empowered, is the same mechanism by which Joseph claimed to translate the Book of Mormon. The discovery that the translation of the Book of Abraham is false, therefore, casts serious doubt on the Book of Mormon as well, and forever cripples Joseph’s claim that he was a true, inspired prophet of God. Thousands of Mormons left the church as the result of this discovery, while thousands more are completely unaware or refuse to see the truth.

So What are We To Believe?
Obviously Joseph Smith had a vivid imagination and was perfectly capable of creating ‘translations’ of real and imagined ancient texts. Some have argued that it is virtually unthinkable that Joseph could imagine a text such as the Book of Mormon or the Book of Abraham, but if you think about it, these two books pale in comparison to the complexity and imaginative history and geography of say perhaps, The Lord of the Rings Trilogy. No one argues that the Tolkien trilogy must be true historical non-fiction based on its level of detail or believability. Joseph’s work is far less developed; why would we doubt that it could be imagined?

When Joseph first published his translation of the Egyptian papyri, hieroglyphics were undecipherable. Today they are fairly easy to decipher. In his day, he was safe in saying anything he wanted; there was no way to prove that his translation was false at the time of the publication. But with the resurfacing of the papyri he used for the translation, we now have a tool to use to evaluate Joseph once and for all. What do you think? Does the book say anything about Joseph’s “divine” abilities? His status as a prophet can easily be evaluated in this Book. It’s up to you to decide.

J. Warner Wallace