My focus over the last dozen posts has been in answering, even if only for myself, some of the more common objections to LDS doctrine or practices. One that you can find frequently in lists made by critics of the Church is the validity of The Book of Abraham as found in The Pearl of Great Price, part of the canonized scripture of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Disclaimer: I don’t claim to be an authority on the subject. I write this from the point of view of a common, regular member of the church. I don’t have a problem with the Book of Abraham and never have. To me it is scripture and I love the things I have learned from it over the years. I just want to understand what the objections are and how they can be easily answered by a simple kind of guy like me.
How we got the Book of Abraham
The Book of Abraham is a translation of some Egyptian papyri containing the writings of the prophet Abraham. The papyri came into the hands of Joseph Smith in 1835 and contain writings of the patriarch Abraham. The translation was published serially in the Times and Seasons beginning March 1, 1842, at Nauvoo, Illinois. See History of the Church, vol. 4, pp. 519-534.
In July 1835, an Irishman named Michael Chandler brought a traveling exhibition of four Egyptian mummies and papyri to Kirtland, Ohio. The papyri contained Egyptian hieroglyphics. The ability to translate Egyptian to English had not yet been discovered or developed. Chandler asked Joseph Smith to look at the scrolls and give some insight into what was written on them.
After reviewing the papyri and giving Chandler a description of parts of the scrolls, Joseph Smith and others purchased the four mummies and at least five papyrus documents. Joseph declared that two of the scrolls contained the writings of Abraham and Joseph of Egypt. He translated the majority of the Book of Abraham text in July of 1835 with some minor revisions in 1842.
Loss and recovery of the papyri
After Joseph Smith’s death, his mother maintained the mummies and papyri, even showing them to interested visitors on occasion. After her death in 1856, Emma sold them to Mr. Abel Combs. Combs then sold two mummies with some papyri to the St. Louis Museum. In 1863 they went to the Chicago Museum, where they were apparently burned in the Great Chicago Fire.
The other mummies were lost, but some papyri survived. In 1947, the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art acquired some additional papyri from a daughter of Combs’s housekeeper. Aziz Suryal Atiya of the University of Utah found eleven fragments of the remaining papyri in May 1966, after he recognized the image of Facsimile 1 in the Pearl of Great Price on one of them.
The three main objections
Critics claim that the translation is a fraud. The original papyri containing some of the source material for the Book of Abraham has been found and translated. The content has been shown to be an Egyptian funeral text known as the Book of Breathings. There does not appear to be any connection to Abraham. His name does not appear anywhere in the papyri or the facsimiles.
Critics claim that the facsimiles are interpreted incorrectly. In fact, they do not seem to bear any similarity to translations provided by modern Egyptologists of the text in the figures. These critics claim that this proves that Joseph had no prophetic gift and was a fraud. They have called for the church to denounce the Book of Abraham as an embarrassment and stop covering it up.
Critics claim that the content of the Book is pure imagination. They claim that what is found in Joseph Smith’s translation is inconsistent with what we know about Abraham and ancient Egypt from the Bible and other sources. In the book are found many unique and important LDS doctrines, including the exaltation of man, plurality of gods, priesthood, and a pre-mortal life.
My three simple answers
I do not believe that the original source material used to translate the Book of Abraham has been found like the critics claim. What has been recovered was only part of the collection. The papyri that Joseph used to translate the Book of Abraham was either destroyed in the great Chicago fire or has yet to be found. There is also the theory that it was a revelation and not a translation.
I prefer to accept Joseph’s translations or interpretations of the figures and text in the facsimiles over what modern Egyptologists have produced. There are so many things that we don’t know about ancient Egypt. The discovery and study of the antiquities that are still being produced is a relatively new science. Perhaps the figures were symbolic and not to be interpreted literally.
As noted previously, I love the content of the Book of Abraham for the very reason that critics complain that it cannot possibly be correct – because it is not contained in creeds of orthodox Christianity. The Book of Abraham provides a rich and deep foundation for understanding the purpose of life. It truly is a blessing from God to have this scripture to increase my testimony.
Summary and Conclusion
I know the topic is so much more complex than I have presented in this brief post. This has been a subject of criticism for almost 150 years but one which the majority of the members of the Church have been unaware. Even those like me that are aware of the controversy don’t seem to be concerned or affected by the criticisms or the implied consequences if proven true.
For some, there are many unanswered questions about the Book of Abraham. I do not have any. For me, it is sufficient that Joseph said he translated the book from papyri that fell into his hands. I believe him. I can even accept the theory that he may have just used the papyri as a catalyst to trigger revelation. The Book of Abraham is scripture and I accept it as doctrine.
For more information please refer to Jeff Lindsay’s exceptional and exhaustive coverage of the controversy, including excellent answers to the objections and recent new favorable evidence. Two additional great sources are the Book of Abraham Project and the BYU Maxwell Institute.
Additional material from FAIR:
1. Book of Abraham FAQ
2. Summary and criticisms
3. Detailed response to criticisms
4. Encyclopedia of Mormonism