Inventing the Book of Abraham

By Bill McKeever

According to the Documentary History of the Church (DHC) 2:235, it was on July 3, 1835 when Michael Chandler "came to Kirtland (OH) to exhibit some Egyptian mummies." According to the record, "There were four human figures, together with some two or more rolls of papyrus covered with hieroglyphic figures and devices." Chandler's display so intrigued the Mormons living in Kirtland that they told the traveling showman how their prophet, Joseph Smith, had the ability to translate the papyri.

When Smith was shown the ancient writing, he claimed that he could translate them and proceeded to give Chandler a brief interpretation. Page 235 states that, for this service, Chandler gave Smith a "certificate" which said in part:

This is to make known to all who may be desirous, concerning the knowledge of Mr. Joseph Smith, Jun., in deciphering the ancient Egyptian hieroglyphic characters in my possession, which I have, in many eminent cities, showed to the most learned; and, from the information that I could ever learn, or meet with, I find that of Mr. Joseph Smith, Jun., to correspond in the most minute matters.

How Chandler could make such a statement is a mystery since he was not an expert in this field. The fact is, there was nobody in the United States who at this time could claim to have expertise in the translation of Egyptian hieroglyphics. The Rosetta Stone, which was instrumental in allowing scholars to decipher the hieroglyphics, had only been recently found (1799) and whatever few "experts" there were in the Egyptian language resided in Europe.

In a way, Smith's bravado demonstrates his gift as a confidence man. Without any Egyptian linguists, he knew how difficult it would be to prove any of his so-called translations untrue. Since he had gotten away with this ploy for five years by claiming that the Book of Mormon was written in "Reformed Egyptian," why shouldn't this ruse work again? Smith seemed to use the limited expertise of his time to full advantage.

After obtaining the papyri, Smith "commenced the translation of some of the characters or hieroglyphics." In doing so, Smith proclaimed "that one of the roles contained the writings of Abraham, another the writings of Joseph of Egypt" (Documentary History of the Church (DHC) 2:236). According to the preface to the Book of Abraham, Smith believed his document was actually written by Abraham's "own hand written upon papyrus."

Imagine for a moment what a find this would be if, in fact, Smith had really discovered the writings of Abraham and Joseph. They would be priceless for they would be the oldest manuscripts available written by someone mentioned in the Bible. In fact, they would be the only autograph manuscripts available. To say the papyri obtained by Smith were written by both Abraham and Joseph would predate the Christian era by about 2,000 years!

For a sum of $2400, Smith's followers were able to convince Chandler to part with his exhibit, thus enabling their beloved prophet to continue "translating" the text. Smith would continue with this project, but he would not be able to finish it. Eventually he would be killed in a gun battle at Carthage, Illinois, and the papyri would be lost. Many believed it was destroyed in the great Chicago fire, never to be recovered.

In 1880 the Mormon Church canonized the Book of Abraham and it became part of the Pearl of Great Price. Standing side by side with the Bible, Book of Mormon and Doctrine and Covenants, this was included as part of Mormonism's "Standard Works."

In time more and more men would become familiar with the Egyptian language. In 1912 Smith's translation would be called into serious question by an Episcopalian Bishop named F.S. Spaulding. Spaulding published a 31-page booklet entitled "Joseph Smith, Jun., As a Translator." In it he included the findings of eight scholars who had examined the "facsimiles" or drawings which are found in the Book of Abraham. All concluded that Smith's translation was erroneous. The Mormons responded by soliciting the services of a man named J.C. Homans who wrote under the assumed name of "Dr. Robert C. Webb, Ph.D." Homans was neither an Egyptologist nor did he hold a doctorate degree. Although his arguments failed to convince the learned, they were enough to appease the faithful Latter-day Saint, so "testimony" once again reigned over fact.

In 1967 interest in the Book of Abraham again surfaced when the papyri Smith used in 1835 were found in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. They were eventually given back to the LDS Church. One would think that, if Joseph Smith were indeed a prophet who was inspired by God to translate the Book of Abraham, this would have been the perfect opportunity to have proved it. However, this was not to be the case. Experts once again proved Smith's translation was incorrect. Not only was Smith's translation bogus, but he completely missed the time period in which the papyri were written. Smith claimed his papyri were written by Abraham around 4,000 years ago; however, experts agree that the papyri go back only as far as the time of Christ.

Whereas Smith claimed his papyri told the story of Abraham's adventures in Egypt, the experts concur that what Smith had in his possession was nothing more than a portion of a funerary text known as the Book of Breathings, a condensed version of the Book of Dead.

Accompanying the written portion of the Book of Abraham were three illustrations or "facsimiles." Facsimile No. 1 shows one figure standing and the other lying on a lion-headed table. An examination of the Smith papyri shows that portions were torn and missing. Because of the torn condition of Smith's original, there is neither head nor hand on the standing figure, and the torso of the figure in the lying down position is missing as well (from just below the waist and up to the neck). This, however, did not prevent Smith from improvising. It is easy to notice that a human head has been pencilled in on the standing figure while a hand holding what appears to be a knife has also been inserted. Smith claimed this standing figure represents the "idolatrous priest of Elkenah attempting to offer up Abraham [the figure lying down on what Smith claimed was an "altar"] as a sacrifice." Above the head of "Abraham" is the figure of a bird Smith calls "the angel of the Lord."

Below the "altar" are figures which Smith said represented the idolatrous gods of Elkenah, Libnah, Mahmackrah, and Korash. Below these figures is the drawing of a crocodile; Smith labels this "The idolatrous god of Pharaoh."

As previously mentioned, this facsimile depicts nothing more than a portion of Egyptian mythology. Click here to see Smith's facsimile as well as an explanation from Dr. Richard Parker, Professor of Egyptology at Brown University.

Despite the fact that Smith's "translation" has been found to be incorrect in every detail, the LDS Church stubbornly continues to include Smith's pretended "Book of Abraham" as part of its scripture. Because many Latter-day Saints are encouraged not to question the authority of their founder, few delve into the facts which expose him for the fraud he is.

[For a more detailed study of The Book of Abraham, we suggest Charles Larson's book, By His Own Hand Upon Papyrus, available through MRM. See our order form.]

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