Fall of the Book of Abraham
The "Book of Breathings" papyrus that Joseph Smith mistakenly used as the basis for his "Book of Abraham" is far removed from Abraham in both time and content. To begin with, many scholars believe that Abraham lived in the twentieth century B.C., yet Professors Parker and Baer date the papyrus to about the time of Christ. Joseph Smith maintained it was written by Abraham's "own hand upon papyrus" (Pearl of Great Price, p. 29).
The contents of the "Book of Breathings" are certainly foreign to the teachings concerning Abraham found in the Bible. The Bible says he rejected paganism, whereas the "Book of Breathings" is filled with pagan gods and practices. The names of at least fifteen Egyptian gods or goddesses are mentioned on the "Sensen" papyri which Joseph Smith had in his possession, but not a word about Abraham. Mormon apologists have
not been able to explain how Joseph Smith derived the "Book of Abraham" from this pagan text. The fact that they are in a real dilemma over this matter is very evident from their writings. Jay M. Todd stated:
The scroll, according to Dr. Baer, was made for a priest named Hor, for his death and mummification ceremonies.
Obviously, if this report by Dr. Baer is accurate, it suggests more than ever that either the papyrus "translated" by the Prophet is still unavailable or that the seer stone provided the actual text of which only a shadow and much corrupted version might have been on the papyri fragments.... the relationship—if any—between the Egyptian symbols on some of the handwritten copies of parts of the Book of Abraham and the text of the Book of Abraham and the appearance of these same Egyptian symbols on one of the papyrus fragments found in New York City is a most intriguing concern. Indeed, some critics of the Church are attempting to discredit the Book of Abraham ... Dr. Nibley has suggested, however, that if there is no relationship between the symbols and the text, then Joseph Smith would have seen none either, nor, from our knowledge of the Prophet's character and personality, would he have attempted to deceive anyone by suggesting a relationship where he knew none existed. Indeed, Dr. Nibley has intimated that there still could be a relationship between the symbols and the English text of the Book of Abraham. Obviously, the matter of identifying the actual source of the Book of Abraham is still unresolved . (The Saga of the Book of Abraham, pp. 377-80).
At the Book of Abraham Symposium, Mormon scholar Dr. Henry Eyring confessed:
Now, the Lord didn't need the Book of Abraham—those scrolls. He was pretty well clear on everything without that.... the essential ingredient in the Book of Abraham is whatever the Prophet was inspired to write down.... I also wouldn't look into the matter to find out whether I thought Joseph Smith was a Prophet.... it seems to me evident that he was much more than that.... it wouldn't make a bit of difference to me if the scholars, studying the scrolls that led the Prophet to think about the problem of Abraham and write about it—it wouldn't make a bit of difference to me if they discovered that it was a bill of lading for wheat in the Lower Nile. You see, some people don't feel that way about it. But I think the Lord actually inspired Joseph (Book of Abraham Symposium, April 3, 1970, p. 3).
The Mormon scholars John Tvedtnes and Richley H. Crapo have gone so far as to suggest that the "Sensen" text might have been a "memory device":
In two different sections of the "Alphabet and Grammar," hieratic symbols taken in order from the "Small Sen-Sen Fragment" ... have been juxtaposed to English symbols (i.e. words) comprising the text of the Book of Abraham.... This correlation was pointed out by certain non-members of the Church.... These same persons believed that the juxtaposition of small groups of hieratic symbols with English symbols in the "Alphabet and Grammar" implies a relationship of translation....
This led to an objection on the part of the non-members: the size of the English text as opposed to that of the Egyptian text (i.e. the 25:1 ratio of the words) seems unbelievably high. Recently, Dee Jay Nelson, a member of the Church and a philologist of the Egyptian language, has accepted this view.
We should therefore reply to these objections if we wish to continue to maintain that the Book of Abraham is scripture, the more so because some respected members of the Church are beginning to accept the rationale behind the argument presented.
If the Book of Abraham is to be presented as authentic, there are two possible directions which can be taken:
A. We can simply discount the objection to the ratio of English to Egyptian symbols, which implies proving that the Book of Abraham text does indeed come from the Sen-Sen text.
B. We can show that there is a relationship between the juxtaposed symbols other than that of translation; we must find some other reason why Joseph Smith put them in juxtaposition.
As previously indicated, assumption "A" seems to be the more desirable, especially in the apparent absence of a reasonable substitute explanation for the juxtaposition. But this possibility appears to have been ruled out by the scholarly translations of the Sen-Sen text by Mr. Nelson, Dr. Richard A. Parker, and Dr. Klaus Baer, showing it to be a normal Egyptian funerary document.
Dr. Nibley, however, still seems to agree with us that possibility "A," a relationship of translation, is the more desirable explanation, for in recent articles he places emphasis on the possibility of a "supercryptogram," i.e. a deeper level of hidden translation. But no one has yet suggested what such a supercryptogram might be.... we recognized some months ago certain cases in which the hieratic words are found in the corresponding English text.... We theorized that perhaps each set of Egyptian symbols represented merely a "key-word" which would bring to mind a certain memorized set of phrases, which was part of a longer oral tradition....
We propose, therefore, as a working hypothesis: either (1) that
the Sen-Sen Papyrus was used as a memory device by Abraham (and perhaps by his descendants), each symbol or group of symbols bringing to mind a set number of memorized phrases relating to Abraham's account of his life, or (2) that the hieratic words in the "Alphabet and Grammar" are simply related to core-concepts in the corresponding English story of Abraham. Either hypothesis requires that Joseph Smith had a working knowledge of the hieratic words on the papyrus. In the second case, much of the English text may have been supplied by Joseph Smith as an inspired commentary on the hieratic words.
Viewed in this light, the Book of Abraham seems not to be a direct translation of the Egyptian text appearing on the Sen-Sen papyrus. Indeed, since the oral tradition itself would have long since disappeared with the death of Abraham or the last of his descendants acquainted with the story, the Book of Abraham would have had to be revealed to Joseph Smith, perhaps in connection with the use of the Egyptian symbols, inasmuch as the Prophet does relate long English passages to single Egyptian words or short phrases (Newletter and Proceedings of the Society for Early Historic Archaeology, Brigham Young University, October 25, 1968, pp. 1-4).
In Mormonism—Shadow or Reality? page 329, we show that the idea that the "Sensen" papyrus was a "memory device" is completely unrealistic. Nevertheless, even Dr. Hugh Nibley has been influenced by this idea. In Brigham Young University Studies, Autumn 1968, pages 101-2, he made this statement about the relationship between the "Sensen" text and the Book of Abraham:
We still suspect that there is a relationship between the two documents, but we don't know what it is.... R. Crapo and J. A. Tvednes [sic], presented an interesting hypothesis to explain the relationship between the Breathing Certificate and the Book of Abraham.... This would make the "Sen-sen" papyrus a sort of prompter's sheet....
Far-fetched as it may seem, there are many ancient examples of this sort of thing, the best-known of which is the alphabet itself.... In a preliminary statement in Dialogue it was suggested that the hieratic symbols placed over against the long sections of the Book of Abraham might be viewed not as texts but as topic headings. We still don't know what the connection is, but one thing is certain—that the relationship between the two texts was never meant to be that of a direct translation.
Mormon scholar Benjamin Urrutia tried his hand in an attempt to explain why Joseph Smith's translation differs from that given by Egyptologists:
In this essay my main objectives shall be to prove that the two titles that have been ascribed to PJS ("The Breathing Permit of Hor" and "The Book of Abraham") are both correct, and that the two translations ... are both good and acceptable translations, each in its own way...
The reasons that make the scholars "rage" and "imagine a vain thing" are that: a) Joseph's translations of PJS is very different from their own; and b) the Book of Abraham is disproportionately long....
Abraham.... wrote the book that bears his name. This document was brought back to Egypt ... when "there arose up a new king over Egypt who knew not Joseph" (Ex. 1:8), what became of the sacred book? ...
The best way to save the book would have been to camouflage it to look like an Egyptian document instead of a Semitic one. Most likely it was already written in Egyptian characters, but that wasn't enough.
An enterprising Hebrew, whom we shall call X, conceived a code in which every character of a Mizraite funerary inscription, with only a few minor (though significant) changes, was the equivalent of two verses, more or less, of the book he was trying to save, the original of which no longer exists.... the Book of Abraham plus X's manipulations equals the Papyrus Joseph Smith.
But once the BA was rendered into code, what chance was there of ever decoding it again? X being dead, the secret was lost, and not a convention of all the world's cryptographist could find it again. The book was in all appearance, and even in reality, "The Breathing Permit of Hor." What was there to be done? What was the key to the lost code? The answer: the Urim and Thummim ... this "translation" was not a translation in the usual sense of the word (as that of the Inspired Version was not, either), and that no man, no matter how wise or imaginative, could have done it by any normal means.... Therefore, my friends, cease raging, cease imagining vain things. Joseph was a prophet, not a linguist. Dr. Baer is a linguist, not a prophet. Each of these men did what he could do, and admirably well, but he could not have done the same kind of translation the other did (even from the same document) (Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, Summer 1969, pp. 130, 131, 134).
The statements we have quoted clearly demonstrate the great lengths Mormon writers will go in their attempt to save the "Book of Abraham." It seems that they will propose almost any fantastic thesis rather than accept the simple truth that the "Book of Abraham" is a spurious work. These new theories certainly are not in harmony with Joseph Smith's statements
concerning the papyrus and the translation. Joseph Smith never mentioned anything about a "memory device" or "supercryptograms"; instead, he clearly stated "... I commenced the translation of some of the characters or hieroglyphics, and much to our joy found that one of the rolls contained the writing of Abraham..." (History of the Church, vol. 2, p. 236). If the "Book of Abraham" is not an actual translation of the papyrus then the introduction to it that appears in the Pearl of Great Price is a misrepresentation.
Our observations lead us to believe that there are a growing number of Mormons who are rejecting the "Book of Abraham." Grant Heward was one of the first openly to attack its authenticity. For this offense Mr. Heward was called in by church leaders to stand trial for "alleged circulation of literature challenging the validity of the translation of a standard work of the Church" (letter dated June 14, 1967). He was excommunicated from the Mormon Church on June 21, 1967. Naomi Woodbury, another Mormon who has studied Egyptology, has also come out against the divinity of the "Book of Abraham." In a letter published in Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, Autumn 1968, page 8, she made these comments:
I myself studied Egyptian hieroglyphics at UCLA several years ago in the hope of resolving some of the problems connected with the "Book of Abraham" in Joseph Smith's favor. Unfortunately, as soon as I had learned the language well enough to use a dictionary I was forced to conclude that Joseph Smith's translation was mistaken, however sincere it might have been. Facsimile No. 2 in the Pearl of Great Price contained enough readable writing to convince me that it had purely Egyptian significance. This was a disappointment to me....
After the appearance of the photographs of the papyri ... I made some attempt to translate the "Book of Breathing(s)" text.... It belongs to a kind of literature which is alien to Christianity and to our Church....
Let us not lose sight of what I think is the primary importance of this papyri find. It can free us from our dilemma about excluding Negroes from the Priesthood. Perhaps our Father in Heaven intended the papyri to come to light now for just this purpose.
The rediscovery of the papyri was probably one of the most important factors in causing Thomas Stuart Ferguson to lose his faith in Joseph Smith's work (see Mormonism—Shadow or Reality? pp. 332-33).
Although the translation of Papyrus XI provides the greatest
To the right [in the above image] is a photograph of the original papyrus from which Facsimile No. 1 was taken. To the left is a copy of Facsimile No. 1 as it appears in the Pearl of Great Price together with Joseph Smith's interpretation.
evidence against the "Book of Abraham," we feel that a very good case can be made against the book on the basis of the facsimiles printed in its pages. Facsimile No. 1, for instance, has now been identified as a part of the same scroll from which the "Sensen" text was taken. In other words, Facsimile No. 1 is in reality an illustration for the "Book of Breathings." Fortunately, the original papyrus from which Facsimile No. 1 was copied is among the eleven fragments which were rediscovered at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (see photograph on p. 357 of this book). Professor Richard Parker comments concerning this papyrus: "This is a well-known scene from the Osiris mysteries, with Anubus, the jackal-headed god, on the left ministering to the dead Osiris on the bier. The pencilled(?) restoration is incorrect. Anubus should be jackal-headed" (Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, Summer 1968, p. 86). Professor Klaus Baer gives this information: "The vignette on P. JS I is unusual, but parallels exist on the walls of the Ptolemaic temples of Egypt, the closest being the scenes in the Osiris chapels on the roof of the Temple of Dendera. The vignette shows the resurrection of Osiris (who is also the deceased owner of the papyrus) and the conception of Horus. Osiris (2) is represented as a man on a lion-couch (4) attended by Anubis (3), the jackal-headed god who embalmed the dead and thereby assured their resurrection and existence in the hereafter" (Ibid., Autumn 1968, pp. 117-18).
It is interesting to note that Professor Baer has now proved beyond all doubt that this is part of the same scroll which contained the small "Sensen" papyrus that Joseph Smith used as the basis for the text of the "Book of Abraham." He has shown that when the two fragments are placed together they match perfectly (see photograph in Mormonism—Shadow or Reality? p. 333). Writing in Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought (Autumn 1968, p. 112), Klaus Baer states: "They seem to have been cut apart after being mounted. The edges match exactly in the photograph, and the pattern of vertical lines drawn on the backing about 2 cm. apart continues evenly from P.JS XI onto the left end of P.JS I when the two are placed in contact."
Just before his article was printed in Dialogue, Klaus Baer went to Brigham Young University and examined the original papyrus fragments. His work with the original manuscripts confirmed the research he had done with photographs of the papyri. In an addendum to his article he stated:
The reverse of the backings of both P.JS I and XI contain parts of
the plan mentioned in n.117, and they clearly adjoin as proposed in n.15; matching upper and lower parts of handwriting are on the two pieces of paper with the cut going through the letters. The fiber patterns show that the papyri were adjoining parts of the same scroll and not simply mounted on adjoining pieces of paper. Papyrus fibers are always irregular and can be used (much like fingerprints) to check whether fragments come from the same sheet; in this case, the horizontal fibers on the left and right edges of P.JS I and XI, respectively, match exactly (Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, Autumn 1968, pp. 133-34).
Even Dr. Hugh Nibley has to admit that before the papyrus was cut Papyrus XI followed immediately after Facsimile No. 1 on the roll: "It can be easily shown by matching up the cut edges and fibers of the papyri that the text of the Joseph Smith 'Breathing' Papyrus (No. XI) was written on the same strip of material as Facsimile No. 1 and immediately adjoining it" (The Message of the Joseph Smith Papyri, p. 13).
Writing in BYU Studies, Winter 1971, pages 160-61, Dr. Nibley stated:
Of particular interest to us is the close association of the Book of Breathing with the Facsimiles of the Book of Abraham. It can be easily shown by matching up the fibers of the papyri that the text of Joseph Smith Pap. No. XI was written on the same strip of material as Facsimile Number 1,... our "Sensen" Papyrus is closely bound to all three facsimiles by physical contact, putting us under moral obligation to search out possible relationships between the content of the four documents.
The text of the "Book of Abraham" itself shows that the drawing shown as Facsimile No. 1 was supposed to be at the beginning of the scroll. In Abraham 1:12 we read: "And it came to pass that the priests laid violence upon me, that they might slay me also, as they did those virgins upon this altar; and that you may have a knowledge of this altar, I will refer you to the representation at the commencement of this record."
As we have already shown, Joseph Smith was "translating" from the small "Sensen" text. Since he was working from right to left, the drawing would have to appear on the right side of the scroll to be at the "commencement of this record." The illustration shown in Mormonism—Shadow or Reality? page 333, proves that the drawing was found on the right side of the "Sensen" text, which is consistent with the statement found in Abraham 1:12. It is also consistent with a statement in Abraham 1:14 which speaks of Facsimile No. 1 as being "at the beginning" of the record.
The reader will notice that the original papyrus fragment from which Facsimile No. 1 was copied has several rows of hieroglyphs which were not included in the printed facsimile. This writing becomes very significant when we try to determine what the drawing is about. In the photograph on page 357 of this book the reader will see the hieroglyphs which appear on the two sides of the drawing. There is another row just above the arm of the standing figure, but most of it has broken off.
Dr. Hugh Nibley has implied that this writing contains some "extraordinary" message, but he has never had the courage to provide a translation of the text. A person would certainly expect to find a translation of this text in his new book, The Message of the Joseph Smith Papyri, but no translation can be found anywhere in the book. Fortunately, Klaus Baer, an Egyptologist from the University of Chicago, has provided a translation of this fragment:
Lines 1-3 give the titles, name, and parentage of the man for whose benefit the Breathing Permit was written:
... the prophet of Amonrasonter, prophet [?] of Min Bull-of-his-Mother, prophet [?] of Khons the Governor ... Hor, justified son the holder of the same titles, master of secrets, and purifier of the gods Osorwer, justified [?] ... Tikhebyt, justified. May your ba live among them, and may you be buried in the West....
Too little is left of line 4 to permit even a guess at what it said. Insofar as I can make it out, line 5 reads:
May you give him a good, splendid burial on the West of Thebes just like... (Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, Autumn 1968, pp. 116-17).
The reader will notice that Klaus Baer reads the names Hor and Tikhebyt on this fragment. These are the very names that appear in the text of the "Sensen" fragments. This establishes beyond all doubt that the fragment is part of the pagan funeral text known as the "Book of Breathings." The names of Egyptian gods are written on the fragment, and the word burial appears twice on this piece of papyrus. It is interesting to note that Klaus Baer translates the word Thebes from the fifth line of the fragment. Dr. Hugh Nibley states that the mummies were "found in Thebes" (Improvement Era, February 1968, p. 21), and Klaus Baer states that "all the known copies" of the "Book of Breathings" "seem to come" from Thebes. Furthermore, the gods mentioned in the text are the very gods that were worshiped at Thebes. All evidence, therefore, points to the unescapable conclusion that this is a pagan document and that it could not have been written by Abraham. No wonder Dr. Nibley refused to provide a translation of this important text.
Egyptologists who have examined the papyrus fragment from which Facsimile No. 1 was copied believe that Joseph Smith's interpretation of it is totally incorrect. What Joseph Smith called "Abraham fastened upon an altar" is in reality Osiris lying upon his bier. The "idolatrous priest of Elkenah" is the god "Anubis" ministering to Osiris.
The Egyptians believed that Osiris was killed by his brother Set. The body was found by Isis, and he was embalmed by Anubis. Osiris was resurrected and became the god of the dead.
The four jars that appear below the bier in Facsimile No. 1 prove that it is a funerary scene. These canopic jars were used to hold the soft parts of the body, which were removed during the embalming process. Joseph Smith's statement that they are the gods of Elkenah, Libnah, Mahmackrah, and Korash is completely wrong.
Egyptologists have always claimed that the Mormons altered the scene shown in Facsimile No. 1. They claim that the standing figure (Anubis) should have a jackal's head instead of a human head. Some Egyptologists claim that the knife in Anubis' hand has been added and that the bird should have a human head. Mormon apologists ridiculed Egyptologists for making these charges, but now that the original papyrus has been located the entire picture has changed. The Mormon position has been considerably weakened because the portions of the papyrus which have been in question—the parts that would have contained the head of Anubis, the head of the bird, and the knife—are missing!
In Mormonism—Shadow or Reality? we present a thorough study of all three of the facsimiles published in the "Book of Abraham." We show that Joseph Smith and his successors made drastic alterations in Facsimile No. 2. One of the scenes shown in Facsimile No. 2 was actually a pornographic representation of an ithyphallic god.
At the 1979 Sunstone Theological Symposium, Dr. Hugh Nibley, the church's chief defender of the "Book of Abraham," found himself under attack by Edward Ashment, a Ph.D. candidate in Egyptology at the University of Chicago, who is employed by the Translation Department of the Mormon Church. Ashment's paper seems to demolish Nibley's arguments on the "Book of Abraham" facsimiles at every turn. In his reply Hugh Nibley conceded: "Since hearing Brother Ashment I have to make some changes in what I have said already. Do I have to hang my head and go hide or something like that because I have been discredited? These things are being found out all the time" (Sunstone, December 1979, p. 51). On page 49 of the
same article, Dr. Nibley made this surprising statement: "I refuse to be held responsible for anything I wrote more than three years ago. For heaven's sake, I hope we are moving forward here. After all, the implication that one mistake and it is all over with—how flattering to think in forty years I have not made one slip and I am still in business! I would say about four fifths of everything I put down has changed, of course."
Nibley's statement that he will not be held responsible for anything he wrote "more than three years ago" seems to discredit his major work, The Message of the Joseph Smith Papyri, because it was written in 1975. This is the book that was supposed to save the "Book of Abraham." After all this one would think that Dr. Nibley would give up, but instead he threatens the critics with "what we hope is a forthcoming book."
While the whole foundation for Dr. Nibley's arguments seems to be crumbling, we can point with confidence to the case we have prepared against the "Book of Abraham." Our arguments are just as good as when we first advanced them in 1968.
The Moment of Truth
The Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, the largest of the groups that broke off from the Mormons, seems to have accepted the truth about the "Book of Abraham." Richard P. Howard, RLDS church historian says that "it may be helpful to suggest that the 'Book of Abraham' represents simply the product of Joseph Smith Jr.'s imagination, wrought out in the midst of what to him must have been a very crucial and demanding complex set of circumstances" (The New York Times, May 3, 1970).
Although the RLDS church seems to have come to grips with this important issue, the Utah Mormon leaders will not face the truth concerning this matter. In an article in the Salt Lake Tribune, May 4, 1970, we read:
"The First Presidency of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints accepts the 'Book of Abraham' as 'scripture given to us through the Prophet (Joseph Smith)," President N. Eldon Tanner said Sunday night.
President Tanner, second counselor in the church's First Presidency, made the statement in response to an article saying the translation of the "Book of Abraham" was the product of Joseph Smith Jr.'s "imagination."
That the Utah Mormon leaders would continue to endorse the "Book of Abraham" in the face of the evidence that has been presented is almost beyond belief.
We feel that if any person will honestly examine this matter he will see that the evidence to disprove the "Book of Abraham" is conclusive. We have shown that the original papyrus fragment Joseph Smith used as the basis for the "Book of Abraham" has been identified and that this fragment is in reality a part of the Egyptian "Book of Breathings." It is a pagan text and contains absolutely nothing concerning Abraham or his religion.
Perhaps one reason the Mormon leaders refuse to face the facts concerning the "Book of Abraham" is that to do so would cast a serious shadow of doubt upon the authenticity of the Book of Mormon. Samuel A. B. Mercer concluded: "...both books were translated from the same Egyptian language, and if the translator failed in the translation of the one book, our faith in his translation of the other must necessarily be impaired..." (The Utah Survey, September 1913, p. 5).
The Mormon leaders cannot repudiate the "Book of Abraham" without seriously discrediting the validity of the Book of Mormon.
Dr. Hugh Nibley has stated: "... a few faded and tattered little scraps of papyrus may serve to remind the Latter-day Saints of how sadly they have neglected serious education... Not only has our image suffered by such tragic neglect, but now in the moment of truth the Mormons have to face the world unprepared, after having been given a hundred years' fair warning" (Brigham Young University Studies, Winter 1968, pp. 171-72).
Truly, this is the moment of truth for the Mormon people. The "Book of Abraham" has been proven untrue, and even Dr. Nibley is unprepared to face the situation. For a number of years we have been calling upon the Mormon leaders to repudiate the "Book of Abraham" and the anti-black doctrine contained in its pages. They have finally yielded to pressure and allowed blacks to hold the priesthood. We feel, however, they should go one step further and admit the "Book of Abraham" is a work of Joseph Smith's imagination.