The Book of Abraham: A Mormon Conundrum

TripleCombinationIn early July (2014) the Mormon Church released a Gospel Topics essay on the translation and historicity of its controversial book of scripture known as the Book of Abraham. The essay has done nothing to quiet the controversy. At issue is the question of Joseph Smith’s translation of some ancient Egyptian papyri that resulted in the Book of Abraham.

In the pre-2013 Introductory Note to the Pearl of Great Price (where the Book of Abraham resides in the Mormon canon of scripture) the Mormon Church explained the book in this way:

The Book of Abraham. A translation from some Egyptian papyri that came into the hands of Joseph Smith in 1835, containing writings of the patriarch Abraham.”

In the current edition of the Mormon Church’s scripture the Introductory Note reads:

The Book of Abraham. An inspired translation of the writings of Abraham. Joseph Smith began the translation in 1835 after obtaining some Egyptian papyri.”

The new wording side steps the issue of Joseph’s traditional/literal translation of the text. Whereas the Church used to promote the idea that Joseph translated the writing that was on the papyri (that is, he rendered the Egyptian characters into English), the revised explanation takes the resulting text of the Book of Abraham and removes it from the content of the papyri.

Joseph_Smith_Papyrus_IThis is no wonder since a major controversy surrounding the Book of Abraham following the 1967 discovery of Joseph’s long-lost papyri is the fact that Joseph’s translation is not supported in any way by the Egyptian – he got it all wrong.

The new Gospel Topics essay continues the effort to rescue Joseph Smith’s groundless “translation” from the harsh reality of informed scholarship. The essay admits, “Mormon and non-Mormon Egyptologists agree that the characters on the [papyri] fragments do not match the translation given in the book of Abraham,” then goes on to state, “The relationship between those fragments and the text we have today is largely a matter of conjecture.” In other words, the Mormon Church does not know what role the Egyptian papyri played in Joseph Smith’s rendering of the Book of Abraham. (Please see Rob Bowman’s excellent discussion of this topic at “What Kind of a Translation Is the Book of Abraham? A Multiple-Choice Question.”)

The Gospel Topics essay on the Book of Abraham has created a conundrum for Mormons. As Utah Lighthouse Ministry’s Sandra Tanner asked elsewhere, which of the following two statements made by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is accurate?

1. The canonized (current) heading on the Book of Abraham: “A Translation of some ancient Records that have fallen into our hands from the catacombs of Egypt. The writings of Abraham while he was in Egypt, called the Book of Abraham, written by his own hand, upon papyrus.”


2. An alternative suggested in the Gospel Topics essay statement found on the LDS Church’s website: “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.”

Does a faithful Mormon choose to believe the canonized explanation? Or does he choose to believe an explanation provided by a nameless group of scholars (approved, no doubt, by someone in authority at Church headquarters)? Perhaps no choice is required of Church members since the Church itself is not troubled by the incongruity.

Rob Bowman notes,

“After all this time, the LDS Church is no closer to an answer. Was the Book of Abraham actually written in Egyptian on the papyri? They don’t know. The ‘only true and living church upon the face of the whole earth’ (D&C 1:30), led by a series of presidents each of whom has been ‘a prophet, seer, and revelator (D&C 21:1; 107:91-92),’ has no idea how to explain the relationship between the book and the papyri.”

Perhaps this is because there is no relationship between them. It’s hard to conclude anything other than that the Book of Abraham is naught but a fabrication (at best), or a falsehood, perpetrated by Joseph Smith, the Prophet of this so-called Restoration.

About Sharon Lindbloom

Sharon surrendered her life to the Lord Jesus Christ in 1979. Deeply passionate about Truth, Sharon loves serving as a full-time volunteer research associate with Mormonism Research Ministry. Sharon and her husband live in Minnesota.
This entry was posted in Book of Abraham, Joseph Smith, LDS Church, Mormon History, Pearl of Great Price and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

22 Responses to The Book of Abraham: A Mormon Conundrum

  1. MJP says:

    An honest question to the Mormons out there who may read this: how does this, the explanations and the very existence of the Book of Abraham, not trouble you?

  2. cattyjane says:

    I actually pasted this onto my facebook page. I will probably lose some friends after this, hopefully not tho. Hopefully it will make them think about some things. To me this is a huge deal! This was one of my eye openers. To me if JS lied about translating this papyrus. What else did he lie about? Prophets arent allowed to lie, or be wrong is anything regarding “so saith the Lord”. If these lds prophets would have lived and “prophesied” during Daniels, or Isaiahs time we would be sending out invitations for a stoning party.
    I think sometimes lds dont even realise when they read something in their doctrine or history that doesnt add up. I think they are trained to just believe it (as are many other religions). I was talking to a friend of mine about a post Mormon Coffee put on their facebook page about Zelph the white lamenite warrior. He read the post and asked me “so whats the problem?” I said “well arent they sopposed to be Native American ancesters or something?” The conversation kind of ended there. My friend is very smart and in fact has a degree in engineering. This made me realise how dangerous it can be to place your hand on a book or doctrine and say I believe everything just because someone said it was true, or my church says its true. God gave us a brain to analyze with. We are required to test what the prophets say. We will not be able to stand before God with an excuse of “he said”. It is our own responsibility to analyze the data and determine what is true. We all answer for our own choices.
    I hope you guys dont mind me sharing this article on facebook.

  3. Kate says:

    The Book of Abraham…… This is what started my research into Mormonism. I opened an old Ensign out of boredom one day and landed on an article called, “Proof the Book of Abraham is true.” I didn’t read one thing that proved it was true. I did take a closer look at the Facsimiles and found plenty of proof that it wasn’t true. Just by looking at those I knew the whole book was a sham. To say I was crushed is an understatement. Like cattyjane, I asked myself if Joseph Smith lied about this, what else did he lie about.

    I remember trying to talk to my mom about it and she kept telling me that I was just losing my faith or I was just looking to find things wrong. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been told that since I started asking questions. I have yet to be told that by a Christian with my questions about Christianity.
    What’s the big deal? Why can’t Mormons honestly answer questions? Why do they see every question as a personal attack or persecution? It’s ridiculous! If the LDS church is really the way, the truth and the life, they should be shouting all these doctrines and books from the rooftops, not doing mental gymnastics to make these things look more acceptable to man!! What does their god think about this?

  4. Cattyjane, we don’t mind you sharing Mormon Coffee posts on Facebook at all! Thank you for expanding the blog’s reach.

    I’d like to clarify that the Mormon Coffee Facebook page you mentioned is not affiliated in any way with MRM or this blog. If you are interested, MRM’s Facebook page is found under the name Mormonism Research Ministry.

  5. cattyjane says:

    Ok thanks! I just wanted to make sure it was ok before I did that. Thanks for letting me know about your facebook page. I will look you guys up! 🙂
    A lot of patience is involved when talking to friends and family who are lds. Its tough because you love them and dont want to push them away but at the same time you dont want to turn a blind eye to someone who is buried in darkness.
    The book of Abraham, the story of the barges, the birth in Jeruselem (not bethlehem) and the true temple vs lds temple were the contributers to my throwing out lds beliefs.

  6. cattyjane says:

    Oops, I meant that response to be for Kate not MJP.

  7. Mike R says:

    The Mormon people have truly been fooled by their leaders who have drifted away from the
    truth about our Creator — the one true God , into accepting the lie of many Gods . The so called
    Book of Abraham was instrumental in this apostasy from truth about God .

    From the very beginning Mormon leadership have been scrambling to try and give their flock
    a decent explanation of why they could trust the Book of Abraham as holy scripture from the
    same God as the Bible . This most recent explanation is yet another example of why the
    Mormon people should dismiss these men as authorities in their lives . The Bible has been
    called the bedrock of the Christian faith , and rightly so . The Mormon leaders have attempted
    to introduce a religion / beliefs on top of that bedrock , but what they have built has been
    found to be laced with man made doctrines thereby exposing it as a unstable source. Safety
    is available for the Mormon people by returning to stand on the Bible , the words of Jesus and
    His apostles are the place where the solid teachings concerning truth about God / Jesus
    and salvation are found . Matt 7:24-27 .

  8. MJP says:

    Whaaaat, catty, no love for me? Just kidding.

    I am glad to hear from you and Kate on this issue. I am confident you are not alone in this issue causing doubt for many others, too.

    I would love to hear from a current Mormon, too, to explain this issue and how such a presentation does not raise serious doubts about the BoA’s veracity, and subsequently the very foundations of Mormonism.

  9. spartacus says:

    And the True Believing LDS answer is…

    The current canonized heading is just folklore.

  10. spartacus says:

    Wait… “canonized folklore”?
    Did we say it was canonized?
    No, no. That part is not canon. It’s folklore… in the canon.

  11. johnnyboy says:

    The book of Abraham is the one thing I spent endless hours researching. I would go back and forth and back and forth over it.

    Now wikipedia has a side by side comparison that makes the whole stupid thing crystal clear.

    Joseph Smith = Con man.

    It saddens me that mormons have no clue about their beloved “pearl of great price”. Almost half of their doctrine comes from it and its a complete scam.

  12. Rick B says:

    It’s sad that we have mormons like Ralph and Clyde who avoid topics like this, while coming on other topics that dont effect doctrine and then spout off about how and why were wrong. The lack of honesty from mormons speaks volumes and proves as the bible says, they are with out excuse.

  13. cattyjane says:

    Ok so this one is for you! I don’t want you to feel left out. 🙂

    What really amazed me when I was looking into this so called book of Abraham was that it is really a portion from “The Book of Breathings” which is an embalming book that the Egyptians used. It references the god Osiris and the man figure on the left is actually the god Anubis and would have a jackal head. This article references this and also gives some interpretations about the other drawings in the book.

    Joseph Smith was able to fool people that he could translate these things because no one else was able to read it that was around him. These people were just trusting JS to be telling them the truth. The problem is that JS did not predict the accessibility to information that would occur in our times. Now we have quick access to research and studies that are done on these artifacts by archeologists because of the internet. People don’t have to trust blindly any longer. They can find reliable studies that are done by people who don’t have a set agenda but are simply looking for historical truth. In the field that I work in, I often work alongside many archeologists. For them its all about the actual account. They do not try to put in their own ideas but look to see what the evidence is revealing to them that they have in front of them.

    The link that I provided is directed to CARM which is an apologetics site. I only gave that link because of the picture and because I was in a hurry, but im sure you can find other sources that have no religious connections at all and find out the truth. It is tough to have what I call “even scales” when weighing information for truth, but we only hurt ourselves if we weight the scale on one side just because of what “we want” to be true.

  14. grindael says:

    Joseph Smith claimed that the Book of Abraham and the Book of Joseph – both of which the Church have, were written by Abraham and Joseph of Egypt, both holographs. Smith claimed right off the bat, like with the Kinderhook Plates, that he could translate them, and did an impromptu “translation”, like with the KP, right away. The two stories are very similar. Joseph did not buy the KP, because Fugate did not want to sell them, but they did make very fine copies of them so Joseph could translate them at a later time, like he did with the BOA, but he died before he could do so. An interesting quote about the KP that many may not know about is by Brigham Young, who said in Boston in the fall of 1843:

    Let us have some of your gold to take to Nauvoo to make a temple & Nauvoo House so that when the Kings Princes & Nobles of the earth call at Nauvoo to enquire after the wisdom of Zion that they may have a place to entertain them, & that the weary travel-lor may be refreshed.

    Is their wisdom in Zion? We think so & the world begin to think so. Let the world come forward & translate the plates that have of late come forth if they have wisdom to do it. The Lord intends to take away the gods of the gods of the gentiles. The Lord pulleth down & buildeth up at his own pleasure. Dont be afraid of a dollar A hundred or a thousand dollars. I would not. I have made a sacrafice a good many times. The Lord has promised A hundred fold & I have taken this course to get rich, to give all I had & God has given many blessings in Consequence. If I have been to bold in asking, then be to bold in giving. Give your all and God will repay as much again. Adjurned untill half past 2 oclok. (Wilford Woodruff’s Journal, Vol. 3, p. 408, September 9, 1843)

    Joseph told those like Brigham Young that the KP were authentic and that he could translate them. Smith perpetuated a fraud on the world with the Book of Abraham. This has been proven time and again, and there is no way for the Mormon Church to explain it away. If he had lived, Smith would have done the same thing with the Kinderhook Plates.

  15. Mike R says:

    It’s sad when you see sincere people detoured by latter days prophets who have not been sent
    by God . These false prophets just can’t fool enough people into following them if they simply
    stand on the Bible alone , so they introduce new ” revelations / scriptures ” , or news of
    allegedly long lost doctrines now due to be revealed . Each of these prophets remind people that
    God is restoring these things through them , and that salvation is only attained by submitting
    to them and joining their organization etc . False prophets are an old problem but they’re
    plentiful in our day . Mormonism is one example .

    May the Mormon people dismiss their prophets and return to where spiritual safety from
    the doctrinal innovations of latter days false prophets with their new ” revelations “can be
    found —- the Bible . Start by exchanging the Book of Abraham and it’s gods , for the Bible
    and it’s God .
    The Mormon people can do this , and God will help .

  16. falcon says:

    What are the figures?
    If my memory serves me right, there are about two-thirds of those on the rolls of the LDS church who are inactive. In-other-words, they just aren’t that into Mormonism. Of those remaining, how many are hard core true blue temple attending and believers in Smith’s religion? My guess of those who would be considered “active” about twenty-five percent of those are what is known as “temple Mormons”.
    I guess my point is that these Mormons have put their faith and trust in Joseph Smith. What can they do when they discover that his BoA is a total fabrication? I suppose they could deny it and thus maintain their faith in Smith and the religious system he created. Denial is a pretty good coping mechanism.
    But the problem is, if someone has any personal integrity, they will have to consider that if Smith made-up the BoA, might he also have made up the BoM and the rest of the program? It’s pretty clear to me what was going on with Smith. The dude caught a religious wave and rode it. Even when he wiped-out there were those who failed to see him in the water. Narly dude!

    The Good News is that a Mormon doesn’t need Joseph Smith, the BoM, the LDS church or the current prophet. They don’t need the two level salvation system where by they earn their way to Smith’s borrowed concept, the Celestial Kingdom.
    All someone needs is Jesus. God didn’t mean for His plan of salvation to be complicated. Jesus died on the cross for our sins. He arose from the dead. Putting our faith totally in Him and what He did is “all” that is necessary for eternal life. That’s right. I said “ALL”. We can’t earn salvation. We don’t deserve salvation. Based on God’s grace we can receive the gift of eternal life God is offering us. As a result of our faith in Jesus, we then lead a transformed life in gratitude for what God did for us.
    Take that step today. If anyone is in Christ Jesus he is a new creature. The old has passed away. All things are new.

  17. Mike R says:

    The Book of Abraham is another attempt by a latter days false prophet led organization to
    bolster it’s claim to be Jesus’ only true church —- allegedly restored after 1700 years of
    being extinct on earth , and the gospel of salvation supposedly not available again to mankind
    until 1830 . This type of reasoning makes it more easy for unsuspecting people to buy into the
    new teachings from these prophets . It’s unfortunate that people can get detoured by the tactics
    these prophets use . These prophets appeal to people’s natural curiosity and together with some
    polished sales techniques they lead them down a road to embracing the Mormon church as the
    only true church . But if people would get past all the smiles , programs , well dressed leaders
    etc , and actually make a detailed test ( 1 Jn 4:1 ) of the claims of these and any other latter
    days prophet then religious/ spiritual manipulation can be averted .

    The Mormon people can get back on the right track by dismissing the Book of Abraham , and
    the prophets / apostles who advertise it . The church Jesus established through His apostles
    did not die off , and the gospel of salvation those men preached far and wide did not become
    unavailable to mankind for 1700 years until 1830 . Those two lies are the heart and sole of
    Mormonism . In discarding these falsehoods God will start to lead Mormons to the simple
    truth waiting for them : forgiveness, peace and a beautiful relationship with His Son
    that grants them access to His very home above . It’s all because of Jesus , not a church ,
    a prophet , secret temple rituals or a myriad of self meriting rules, laws , of a religious
    organization in hope of becoming ” worthy” . Jn 14:6 ; Heb 7:25

  18. falcon says:

    That would be a big step for a Mormon, wouldn’t it. That is rejecting the BoA as actual scripture. That would put a huge hole in an LDS members faith foundation. First of all it would be admitted that the BoA is not scripture and is, in fact, a creation of Joseph Smith’s own imagination.
    So how do other Mormon sects handle it by rejecting the BoA? How can these sects still consider Joseph Smith a prophet. Well he could be viewed as a “fallen” prophet. That’s one way of handling it I suppose. But back to my original point, if the BoA is bogus, what else in Mormonism can be called into question? When everything that is questionable is peeled back, there’s really nothing left of Mormonism.

  19. Mike R says:

    Falcon, the scholarly ( Egyptologists) is a good evidence against the Book of Abraham .
    But for me to consider Mormons arguments for the Book of Abraham takes a back seat to
    the claims of Mormon leaders that Jesus’ church died off , became extinct along with the
    true gospel of salvation ( Rom 1:16 ) that His apostles preached far and wide shortly after
    the deaths of the apostles . A complete apostasy thus necessitating a restoration — this is
    the Mormon claim . That claim is false , and unless Mormon authorities can prove otherwise
    then why would I look into the Book of Abraham ? To me it’s putting the cart before the horse.

    The Mormon people don’t need the Book of Abraham , nor their leaders . Salvation is through
    Jesus , and information concerning Him , and the forgiveness He offers , is available in the
    Bible . Men and women have discovered it there for hundreds of years . Mormons can too .

  20. luvinlife says:

    In my opinion the smoking gun for a Mormon should be the facsimiles themselves. How could anyone believe that the God of the Bible who despises pagan gods, who despises idolatry, who sent plagues on Egypt that were targeted at their false gods, would inspire a prophet to use pictures of these pagan gods to depict Himself and His priesthood? To believe that God would inspire a prophet to depict the pagan God of sex and fertility (Min) setting on his throne with an erection as Himself is unthinkable. Forget about the papyri, the facsimiles are all you need to realize how ridiculous the book of Abraham is. If you want to go the route of an inspired translation, then surely you can see that this inspiration didn’t come from God.

  21. MJP says:

    Thanks, Catty. I appreciate it. I agree.

    Everyone has made great points, but (not?) surprisingly, we have not heard from any Mormons on this topic. It certainly is interesting to note their silence on matters such as this.

  22. Brian says:

    Thank you, Sharon, for your post. I was reminded of Proverbs 30:6 as I read it.

    Joseph Smith said, “Some ancient Records … have fallen into our hands from the catacombs of Egypt. The writings of Abraham … written by his own hand, upon papyrus.” On the papyrus was preserved writings (hieroglyphics) and even illustrations. Illustrations which would later be printed (marked with Joseph’s explanatory notes) along with a translation of the hieroglyphics.

    These were not the first ancient records that Joseph said he came into possession of. If he was mistaken as to the author and content of the papyrus, why are LDS leaders certain he was correct earlier as to the author and content of the plates? Or are they certain?

    As a side note, I have read the Book of Mormon followed by the Book of Abraham. I was surprised by how different they are. To be candid, I was shocked by the latter’s polytheism. At least in this regard, it is nothing like the Book of Mormon. If for no other reason, the Book of Abraham is a pretense because Abraham was not a pagan.

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