“Book of Abraham Translation,” Church History Topics
“Book of Abraham Translation”
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints embraces the book of Abraham as scripture. This book, a record of the prophet and patriarch Abraham, largely follows the biblical narrative but adds important information regarding Abraham’s life and teachings.
The book of Abraham emerged from a set of unique historical events. In the summer of 1835, an entrepreneur named Michael Chandler arrived at Church headquarters in Kirtland, Ohio, with four Egyptian mummies and multiple scrolls of papyrus.1 A group of Latter-day Saints in Kirtland purchased the artifacts for the Church. After Joseph Smith examined the papyri and commenced “the translation of some of the characters or hieroglyphics,” his history recounts, “much to our joy [we] found that one of the rolls contained the writings of Abraham.”2
Joseph Smith worked on the translation of the book of Abraham during the summer and fall of 1835, by which time he completed at least the first chapter and part of the second chapter.3 His journal next speaks of translating the papyri in the spring of 1842, after the Saints had relocated to Nauvoo, Illinois. All five chapters of the book of Abraham, along with three illustrations (now known as facsimiles 1, 2, and 3), were published in the Times and Seasons, the Church’s newspaper in Nauvoo, between March and May 1842.4
Some evidence suggests that Joseph studied the characters on the papyri and attempted to learn the Egyptian language. His history reports that in July 1835 he was “continually engaged in translating an alphabet to the Book of Abraham, and arrangeing a grammar of the Egyptian language as practiced by the ancients.”5 This “grammar,” as it was called, consisted of columns of hieroglyphic characters followed by English translations recorded in a large notebook by Joseph’s scribe William W. Phelps. Another manuscript, written by Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery, has Egyptian characters followed by explanations.6 The relationship of these documents to the book of Abraham is not fully understood.
After the Latter-day Saints left Nauvoo, the Egyptian artifacts remained behind. Joseph Smith’s family sold the papyri and the mummies in 1856. Historians believe that most of the papyri were destroyed in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. Ten fragments once in Joseph Smith’s possession ended up in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.7 In 1967, the museum transferred these fragments to the Church.8 Mormon and non-Mormon Egyptologists agree that the characters on the fragments do not match the translation given in the book of Abraham, though there is not unanimity, even among non-Mormon scholars, about the proper interpretation of the vignettes on these fragments.9
Neither the Lord nor Joseph Smith explained the process of translation of the book of Abraham. Records indicate that Joseph and others studied the papyri and that close observers believed that the translation came by revelation. As John Whitmer observed, “Joseph the Seer saw these Record[s] and by the revelation of Jesus Christ could translate these records.”10
It is likely futile to assess Joseph’s ability to translate papyri when we now have only a fraction of the papyri he had in his possession. Eyewitnesses spoke of “a long roll” or multiple “rolls” of papyrus.11 Since only fragments survive, it is likely that much of the papyri accessible to Joseph when he translated the book of Abraham is not among these fragments.
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.12 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.13
The veracity and value of the book of Abraham cannot be settled by scholarly debate concerning the book’s translation. The book’s status as scripture lies in the eternal truths it teaches and the powerful spirit it conveys. The truth of the book of Abraham is ultimately found through careful study of its teachings coupled with sincere prayer and the confirmation of the Spirit.