Book of Abraham
The “standard works,” or the Mormon books of scripture, include the King James Version of the Bible, the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants, and the Pearl of Great Price. The Pearl of Great Price is composed of several smaller books – the Book of Moses, the Book of Abraham, Joseph Smith-Matthew, Joseph Smith-History, and the Articles of Faith. The Book of Abraham is the possibly the best known of these books and certainly the most controversial.
The Book of Abraham, Mormons believe, is Abraham’s own account of part of his life. He talks about the idolatry of the Egyptian-like society he lived in, and about barely escaping sacrifice to the Egyptian gods by a priest. Jehovah saves him from death and the book then discusses the blessings promised to Abraham and his seed. After this, Abraham speaks of a vision he had through the Urim and Thummim, in which the Lord teaches him astronomy (including the dwelling place of God) and many truths of the gospel, including the doctrine that men and women lived with God before they came to earth. The creation is described in more detail than in Genesis. The Book of Abraham also contains three facsimiles, reproduced from the original papyri, interpreted by Joseph Smith Jr.
Where did these papyri come from? Joseph Smith bought four Egyptian mummies and papyri in 1835, in Kirtland, Ohio. Who sold the mummies? An entrepreneur who’d heard Joseph could translate. By this time, Joseph Smith’s translation and publishing of the Book of Mormon was well known. Joseph inspected the papyri and made a few statements that agreed with the opinions of other scholars who’d seen them. Beyond that, however, Joseph found Abraham’s record in the papyri. This excited Joseph very much. He bought the mummies and papyri and began translating. This period of Mormon history was one of constant harassment, but Joseph Smith completed his translation in 1842 and published it in the Mormon periodical, Times and Seasons, along with the facsimiles. This translation later became the Book of Abraham. Joseph Smith intended to translate more from these papyri, but the endless persecution and, finally, his martyrdom in 1844, prevented it. Joseph’s wife, Emma, had the mummies and papyri in Illinois when the Mormons, as a group, moved west to Utah. She eventually sold them and part of them ended up in Chicago – and were though to be destroyed by the great fire of 1871. But in 1966, fragments of those papyri were discovered in New York’s Metropolitan museum. The Mormon Church acquired these and put them in its archives.
Since these fragments were discovered, they’ve become a point of debate between Mormons and their critics. Egyptologists nowadays would be better translators than scholars in Joseph Smith’s days, and many believe that these Egyptologists can test Joseph Smith’s translation of the papyri and, thus, also his claim as a prophet. Critics say that two things (among a few points) disprove Joseph Smith’s translation. First, the found papyri are 2,000 years old, not 4,000 years old, as Joseph Smith claimed. However, the content could easily have been 4,000 years old, and recopied. The New Testament that we have today wasn’t written exactly at the time of Christ (the Gospels were written decades after Christ), but we accept that we probably don’t have the original sources that the Gospel writers drew off of (written and oral) and the Gospels still contain the record of Christ.
But the critics’ main point of criticism is the facsimiles. The hieroglyphics in the found facsimiles don’t translate to the Book of Abraham. Instead, they translate to “The Book of Breathings,” an ordinary funeral text. However, we don’t have much of Joseph Smith’s original papyri – it’s been lost – and the description we have of the Abraham papyri doesn’t match the New York fragments. So debate rests at a stalemate. Critics claim Joseph Smith’s translation is false, Mormon apologists claim that the found fragments don’t contain the Book of Abraham. One of the facsimiles was found, however, and this is where the debate focuses for now. Although the facsimiles are pictures, not hieroglyphics, they are interpreted differently by modern scholars than Joseph Smith.
But we must also look beyond scholarship when speaking about Joseph Smith’s translation, and into the realm of faith. Some Mormons believe that the Book of Abraham was given to Joseph Smith more by revelation than by literal hieroglyphic by hieroglyphic translation. The Book of Moses, in the Pearl of Great Price, came from Joseph Smith’s translation of the Bible. According to Mormon belief, while Joseph Smith was going through the book of Genesis, God revealed lengthy passages to him, not found in the Bible. The Book of Moses is the result. Also, Section 7 of the Doctrine and Covenants is described as a translation of a parchment written by the Apostle John. However, Joseph Smith doesn’t mention finding a physical parchment and, like the rest of the Doctrine and Covenants, the section may have been a direct revelation given by God. For believers in the Mormon faith, translation is the scholarly, word for word, sense is not an issue of believe. Joseph Smith was barely educated and didn’t translate by scholarly means, but by revelation from God. The truths he revealed are what Mormons are concerned with, not whether he performed like a scholar. The purpose of translation was never to show off – translation was a method of revelation.