First off, some information, what is the Book of Abraham? Well the book was derived from a set of Egyptian papyri purchased by the Joseph Smith in 1835 from a traveling mummy show. Although no formal training in Egyptology, Joseph Smith created a translation of part of the papyri, and the work was published called the The Book of Abraham. Today it remains a component of the Mormon quad–their canon of scripture. [The text is published as part of the Pearl of Great Price, one of the four canonical scriptures of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.]
Why is this important? Well firstly, Joseph Smith, the prophet, translated the papyri. Secondly, the book is part of the Mormon canon. Thirdly, the Book of Abraham provides justification for important Mormon doctrines, including the exaltation of man, plurality of gods, priesthood, and pre-mortal existence not found in any of the other canonized scriptures of the LDS.
So you’re probably asking big deal, he translated some scrolls. Well not exactly. What if we had the exact same papyri that Joseph Smith used for his translation? Would the results be the same? Well get this, in 1966 some of the papyrus scrolls were found in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Based on this rediscovered source material of the Book of Abraham, qualified Egyptologists can once again complete a translation. What they found is startling.
Using illustrations and the original text of the Book of Abraham it was found the documents are in fact funerary texts that describe events in the afterlife of deceased Egyptians that is consistent with other historical and archaeological evidence. Today we can prove that Joseph Smith incorrectly translated the papyrus.
Independent scholars, Egyptologists, are in agreement about the nature of the documents. Only church sanctioned Mormon Universities still try to claim the translation is still correct. Mormon scholars currently do not discuss the translation since it’s not open to debate, the documents are clearly funerary in origin.
Why is this a death blow to Mormonism? As stated above, Joseph Smith is a prophet to the LDS church, but he states that the Book of Abraham is:
A Translation of some Ancient Records that have fallen into our hands, from the Catacombs of Egypt, purporting to be the writings of Abraham, while he was in Egypt.
After closer examination, Smith also declared,
… with W. W. Phelps and Oliver Cowdery as scribes, I commenced the translation of some of the characters or hieroglyphics, and much to our joy found that one of the rolls contained the writings of Abraham, another the writings of Joseph of Egypt, etc. — a more full account of which will appear in its place, as I proceed to examine or unfold them.
Joseph claimed that he received divine inspiration in having discovered and translated an existing ancient work. Joseph claimed to be the prophet, seer, and revelator who could decipher it. Joseph Smith the prophet was wrong.
How can a prophet be wrong yet people still trust his other works? Well it doesn’t stop there. For each of the facsimiles, Joseph Smith offered a detailed explanation or interpretation of various elements on the papyrus and fragments. Here is one of those facsimiles (number 3).
Smith ‘translated’ this image as such: a representation of Abraham sitting on the Pharaoh’s throne teaching the principles of astronomy to the Egyptian court. The figure behind “Abraham in Egypt” is “King Pharaoh, whose name is given in the characters above his head.” The figure before “Abraham” is “Prince of Pharaoh, King of Egypt”. The dark character is “Olimlah, a slave belonging to the prince” and in between is “Shulem, one of the king’s principal waiters”.
What do independent Egyptologists say? This is merely the judgment of the dead before the occupied throne of the Egyptian god, Osiris. The picture of Osiris shows his typical headdress or crown and his arms are placed in a typical position in which he holds a sceptre and a flail. In front of Osiris, but with her face turned away, is Ma’at, the Egyptian goddess of justice, truth and order wearing her traditional feather on her head.
Unfortunately for Joseph Smith both the recovered papyri and the facsimiles published with the Book of Abraham bear no direct connection, either historical or textual, to Abraham. Abraham’s name does not appear anywhere in the papyri or the facsimiles.
I’ve read some of the Mormon positions/rebuttals on the subject and let me say they are aren’t well articulated and contain very poor scholarship. The Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies (FARMS), is trying in vain to respond to the material but again the scholarship is less than stellar.
How should we approach these conclusions? The theological implications are great, if you can’t trust the Book of Abraham then plurality of gods, pre-mortal existence, and more, have zero validity in the LDS faith. Fact of the matter is you can’t reason your way to convince anybody out of their particular faith even if there is damning evidence to discredit their most sacred prophet.
Many Mormons value their faith, value their experiences, and as such will not ‘convert’ as a result of a scientific debunking of one of their scriptures. In the very least I hope it makes everyone dig a little deeper when learning about their own faith.
1. See History of the Church, vol. 2, pp. 235, 236, 348-3512. History of the Church, Vol. 2, Ch. 17, p. 236. July 1835
17. See for example The Judgment of the Dead. Retrieved on 2006-08-07.
25. Richard A. Parker, "The Joseph Smith Papyri: A Preliminary Report", Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, Summer 1968, p. 98.
32. Stephen E. Thompson, "Egyptology and the Book of Abraham", Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 28/1 (Spring 1995): 148-152. See also the translations in the Analysis of the Joseph Smith papyri section of this article.
33. The Joseph Smith Hypocephalus ... Twenty Years Later. Retrieved on 2006-08-07. In this article, Michael D. Rhodes examines facsimile 2, the hypocephalus, and notes that the four sons of Horus (figure 6) plausibly fits with Joseph Smith's explanation that the figure "represents this earth in its four quarters".
Many sources from Wikipedia