The Joseph Smith Papyrus Was Never The Basis For The Book of Abraham

In 1966, a University of Utah teacher looked at some papyri fragments and discovered that they matched a facsimile in the Book of Abraham.

Joseph Smith’s Egyptian collection had perished in the Chicago fire of 1871, but apparently these ten small fragments survived. They are a small part of Joseph Smith’s original collection, which included at least four scrolls of considerable size.

The recovered papyri fragments contain text from the ancient Book of Breathings. This is a simple funeral ritual and has nothing to do with the Book of Abraham, according to Egyptologists.

Were these the papyri that Joseph Smith said he used to produce the Book of Abraham? Does this prove he was a fraud?

Evidence shows that Joseph Smith used a different scroll, a scroll that perished in the fire. The Hor Book of Breathings scroll does contain a vignette that matches Facsimile 1, but nothing leads us to believe that these fragments were the source used in the translation of the the Book of Abraham.

Our first question should be, are these recovered fragments actually from Joseph Smith’s collection? Probably, yes. There are maps of Kirtand drawn on the back. An affidavit with Emma Smith’s signature accompanied the artifacts. Also, the vignette does match up to the Book of Abraham facsimile.

But then again, these documents passed through at least ten people before being rediscovered. Are we sure that is has been perfectly preserved over this time? What about the parts that weren’t recovered? All we have are a few small fragments and that doesn’t tell us much.

Not The Source For The Book of Abraham

The recovered fragments match up to three scrolls from Joseph Smith’s collection. We know of a fourth scroll, of which no fragments were recovered. Witness accounts from 1835 give us clues about which scrolls Joseph Smith said contained the Book of Abraham text.

Black Scroll vs. Long Scroll – The rediscovered fragments are not what Joseph Smith used to produce the Book of Abraham. Witnesses describe one of Joseph Smith’s Egyptian scrolls as black, with fragments that she pasted into a book:

“[Lucy Mack Smith] produced a black looking roll (which she told us was papyrus) found on the breast of the King, part of which the prophet had unrolled and read; and she had pasted the deciphered sheets on the leaves of a book which she showed us.”

(1846, Friends’ Weekly Intelligencer)

A few sheets of this scroll were pasted into pages of a book. These pasted pages were apparently later put under glass, but the sheets under glass must not have been very large, as they had first come from pages of a book.

But then, witnesses described a different kind of scroll. After the black scroll, Lucy Smith “opened a long roll of manuscript, saying it was ‘the writing of Abraham and Isaac.’

Witnesses said there was “a number of glazed slides, like picture frames containing sheets of papyrus, with Egyptian inscriptions and hieroglypics.” The lengthy sheets of papyrus under glass could have come from the “long roll of manuscript” which “contained the Book of Abraham.”

The recovered papyri we have today contain only a few tiny fragments on book-sized paper, with only 18 characters from the Hor Book of Breathings. But witnesses describe “entire sheets of parchment” under glass, different from the scattered fragments we have today:

“From this he drew forth a number of glazed slides, like picture frames, containing sheets of papyrus, with Egyptian inscriptions and hieroglyphics. These had been unrolled from four mummies, which the prophet had purchased at a cost of twenty-four hundred dollars. By some inexplicable mode, as the storekeeper informed me, Mr. Smith had discovered that these sheets contained the writings of Abraham, written with his own hand while in Egypt.”

(Henry Caswall, The City of the Mormons 1842)

“Some parchments inscribed with hieroglyphics were then offered us. They were preserved under glass and handled with great respect. ‘That is the handwriting of Abraham, the Father of the Faithful,’ said the prophet.”

(Josiah Quincy, Figures of the Past, 1883)

Red Ink – A witness says the source for the Book of Abraham contained red and black ink, in perfect preservation:

“Upon the subject of the Egyptian records, or rather the writings of Abraham and Joseph… This record is beautifully written in papyrus with black, and a small part, red ink or paint, in perfect preservation.”

But the Hor Book of Breathings fragments with the Facsimile 1 vignette contains no red ink. The only fragments we have with red ink come from the Tsemminis scroll, and these fragments contain no facsimiles, and is also poorly preserved.

Handwriting & Preservation – The fragments we have today include messy handwriting. They are in very poor preservation. But Oliver Cowdery described the Book of Abraham scrolls as beautifully written and in great preservation:

“The record of Abraham and Joseph, found with the mummies, is beautifully written in papyrus with black, and a small part, red ink or paint, in perfect preservation.”

William I. Appleby likewise made it clear in his journal account that multiple scrolls were involved and that there was significant difference between the quality of preservation in the scrolls.

Hebrew Writing – Some of the writing on the Book of Abraham scroll appeared to be in Hebrew, Appleby said. Well, Joseph Smith had lessons in Hebrew so he should have been able to recognize it. Hebrew looks very different from hieroglyphics to anyone. The rediscovered fragments contain nothing that resembles Hebrew.

“Saw the Rolls of Papyrus and the writings thereon, taken from off the bosom of the Male Mummy, having some of the writings of ancient Abraham and of Joseph that was sold into Egypt. The writings are chiefly in the Egyptian language, with the exception of a little Hebrew. I believe they give a description of some of the scenes in Ancient Egypt, of their worship, their Idol gods, etc. The writings are beautiful and plain, composed of red, and black inks. There is a perceptible difference, between the writings. Joseph, appears to have been the best scribe.” (William I. Appleby Journal)

This couldn’t be from the Book of Breathings roll on the chest of the Hor mummy. The other two mummies were female. So whose scroll was it? There was a second male mummy in Joseph Smith’s collection which contained the Amenhotep Roll, identified based on transcriptions in the Kirtland Egyptian Papers. These transcriptions are not decipherable as any known Egyptian text, and no fragments or sheets from this roll have been recovered.

Based on witness descriptions, the source of the Book of Abraham was the Amenhotep Roll, not the rediscovered papyri we have today. It probably was written with black and red ink, was in good preservation, contained some Hebrew, and contained large sheets from a lengthy scroll.

Facsimiles On A Different Scroll

Facsimiles 2 and 3 have not been recovered, but Egyptologists agree that Facsimile 2 likely came from the Hypocephalus document for yet another person named Sheshonq. It could not have been part of the Hor Book of Breatherings scroll, so if Joseph Smith took the vignette from a different document to produce Facsimile 2, wouldn’t it be reasonable to assume he got Facsimiles 1 and 3 from different sources as well?

Also, we already have four scrolls for four mummies, so who was this Sheshonq? Why was a Hypocephalus for a different person included with one of the mummies?

One possibility is that Joseph Smith translated these Facsimiles from the Book of Abraham scroll, and that Facsimile 1 happened to also appear on the Book of Breathings scroll as well, relating to a different context. This leaves the question, why was Hor mentioned in Facsimile 1?

Not Abraham’s Facsimiles – The most likely explanation is that the Amenhotep roll which contained the Book of Abraham did not contain any facsimiles at all, only contained text, and Joseph Smith took the Facsimiles from the other scrolls. This would also explain why the fragments of the other scrolls were placed under glass in the same collection as the Abraham sheets.

Abraham 1:12-14 makes direct reference to one of the Facsimiles, but does that mean the Facsimile was actually drawn in that roll to reference? No. Ancient books omitted illustrations that were referenced in the text all the time. The Roman Ten Book on Architecture makes references to many illustrations, but none of those illustrations have survived over time, because the book has been transcribed many times.

Text is much easier to transcribe than illustrations. It is likely that the Amenhotep roll contained a copy of the original Book of Abrhaam, not the actual document written by Abraham himself, and that the illustration had been long ago lost. Yes, Joseph Smith said that the writing was written by Abraham’s own hand, but does that mean the ink on that parchment was actually put there by Abraham, or just that the words were originally from Abraham’s hand. Dr. Hugh Nibley laboriously points out that ancient documents frequently claimed to be from someone’s “own hand,” while they were actually from transcriptions of the original writing. Many ancient religious documents were like this.

Why did Joseph Smith handle multiple scrolls at all if only one of them could had contained the Abraham text? To get the facsimiles. They were presented in the other scrolls’ different contexts, but maybe they were similar enough to be useful, to discern the original Abraham meaning. This theory has several supporting pieces of evidence:

Facsimiles Translated Separately – The Grammar and Alphabet from 1835 reveals that the Facsimiles were all considered separately from the Book of Abraham. Elements of the facsimiles were carefully examined, with a side-by-side definition for each character. None of the Book of Abraham text was included in this examination. It all had to do with the Facsimiles. Why?

The Facsimiles apparently required extra consideration, because they were not direct transcriptions like the Abraham text. Joseph Smith likely had to delve deeper into their meanings because they were descendants of a much older version. The rediscovered parchments had been taken from an older Abrahamic source and used in a different context, the Book of Breathings. This would also explain why these side-by-side definitions do not always correspond to Egyptian definitions language we now have available today. They were deciphering the original meaning of those diagrams.

Abraham Describes Facsimile Differently – Abraham 1:12 describes a different Facsimile than what we see in the Hor Book of Breathings roll. Abraham describes the bedstead as standing “before” the idol gods. The facsimile shows the bed over the idols, but we don’t get a point of perspective whether they are in front of behind them. The priest’s foot is in front of the jars, so it looks to me like the jars are under the bed.

Abraham’s text reads: “I have given you the fashion of them in the figures at the beginning, which manner of figures is… hieroglyphics.” There are no hieroglyphics in this Facsimile, and there is nothing to explain anything about this idols. I don’t think this diagram is what Abraham originally drew, but they are similar. The Facsimiles we have today, which do somewhat match the rediscovered fragments, were not in the Book of Abraham scroll, but were taken by Joseph Smith from the Hor Book of Breathings document and other documents. Whoever drew them had taken original Abrahamic diagrams and fit them into the context of an Egyptian funeral document.

Book of Breathings Relates To Abraham As An Endowment

If indeed the original Abrahamic facsimiles were taken and used in Egyptian funeral documents, those Egyptian documents ought to relate at least somewhat to Abraham, right? Well it turns out they do.

The Book of Breathings is a condensed version of the Book of the Dead, which was a guide for the deceased to reach exaltation. It is one of the oldest religious writings in history, and it was one of the first Egyptian books to be translated into English, as it was greatly revered by 19th century Theosophists. It provided “spells” and direction for an initiate in the Egyptian temple to pass through the gates of heaven and achieve rejuvenation.

Before anyone could translate Egyptian into English, Joseph Smith had said that some writing in the scrolls “was pertaining to the Priesthood.” (Warren Foote) He also said that some of the writings in the Facsimiles: “Contains writings that cannot be revealed unto the world; but is to be had in the Holy Temple of God.” That is exactly what the Book of Breathings was all about.

If Joseph Smith had translated the word-by-word meaning of the Book of Breathings, it still would not have “revealed unto the world” the true meaning behind them. The literal translation of these writings translate to commands, such as: “Grant that the soul of Osiris Sheshonk may live!” What does that sound like? They are keys and tokens of the priesthood, for use in the temple. Abraham makes many references to temple priesthood.

Book of Breathings & Abraham On Same Scroll? – The Book of Breathings is a guide for the temple. Considering the Book of Abraham credits Abraham as the author of astronomy and religious elements of Egypt, it makes sense that the vignettes in this temple book descend from Abraham. It also makes sense that a transcription from some of Abraham’s text accompany this important book. Appleby clarified that the mummy only had “some of the writings” of Abraham. Maybe this Book of Breathings descended from another book of Abraham? Or maybe the Abraham text was on the same scroll as the Book of Breathings, in a part that didn’t survive the Chicago fire?

Possibly, but remember Appleby wrote that “a genealogy of the mummies, and the epitaphs and their deaths, etc., etc., are also distinctly represented on the Papyrus which is called the ‘Book of Abraham.'” Why would a scroll written by Abraham contain such funeral information about a totally different person? Joseph Smith never claimed that any of these mummies were the corpse of Abraham. Appleby’s account therefore confirms that Joseph Smith knew these were funeral documents, that the mummy was not Abraham himself, and that they were not the original Book of Abraham document. It also provides further evidence that the Book of Breathings scroll was not the Book of Abraham scroll. There is nothing on the recovered fragments, or in any other Book of Breathings scrolls in Egypt, that would appear to contain genealogy or epitaphs of mummies, even to those unfamiliar with Egyptian.

Only Part Of Abraham’s Text – The Book of Abraham ends very abruptly. Abraham mentions that he moved to Egypt, he starts to talk about the Creation, and then… suddenly it ends. Why?

So the scroll apparently only had part of the Book of Abraham text, or Joseph Smith translated only a portion of it and left the rest, which may have contained the genealogy and epitaph of the deceased. Consider just what it was that Joseph Smith translated. Most of it speaks of foreordination and the creation of the world. These are temple themes that are perfectly appropriate alongside temple initiation writings found in the Book of Breathings. It speaks of an “appointment to the priesthood,” and a “right belonging to the fathers” to “possess a greater knowledge,” which is what the Book of Breathings was for.

The Book of Abraham text could have very well have been on the same scroll as the Book of Breathings. My guess is that the scroll started with the Egyptian endowment, started with Abraham’s text, and then continued deeper into temple themes, and Joseph Smith held back translating those parts. That would explain why the Abraham text ends so abruptly. It’s like Joseph Smith cut it off just as it started getting really interesting. Either that or the scroll was simply damaged.

But Abraham does record that God said:

“I will bless them through thy name; for as many as receive this Gospel shall be called after thy name, and shall rise up and bless thee, as their father… and in thee (that is, thy Priesthood)… even with the blessings of the Gospel, which are the blessings of salvation, even of life eternal.” (Abr 2:10-11)

What is this Gospel of life eternal? In the Book of Breathings we find it:

“The hearts of the gods are content with all that he has done. He has given bread to the hungry, water to the thirsty, clothing to the naked. He has given offerings to the gods and invocation offerings to the blessed dead. There is no accusation against him before any of the gods. Let him enter into the afterlife without being turned away.”

Feed the hungry, give water to the thirsty, clothe the naked… Exactly what the New Testament talks about. Jesus provides this same list of behaviors that lead to “life eternal.” “And these shall go away into everlasting punishment: but the righteous into life eternal.” (Matt 25:46) The Book of Breathings and the Book of Abraham talk about the same thing.

Why Did Joseph Smith Compare Book of Breathings Character To Abraham Text?

The most incriminating evidence that the Book of Abraham came from the Book of Breathings fragments can be found in early church documents that line up some hieroglyphs from the recovered fragments with text from the Book of Abraham. In the first column, we see characters from the rediscovered fragments, and in the other column paragraphs from the Book of Abraham.

Is this the smoking gun? Does this prove that these surviving fragments were involved in its translation, and that it’s therefore phony?

  • No. If this document was the source of the Book of Abraham, why did they only get to chapter 2 in this comparison? There are several chapters that are unaccounted for. It therefore could not have been used to produce the Book of Abraham
  • Each single hieroglyph character matches up to long paragraphs of text. Why would Joseph Smith claim he was translating paragraphs from a single character?
  • The hieroglyphs overlap the page’s columns, while the English text does not. This suggests that the English was written first, and that it therefore came from a previous source.
  • These hieroglyphs do not appear in the Grammar and Alphabet list, so their definitions were apparently not explored like the facsimiles were. Why not? Both documents were written around the same time, after all.
  • Joseph Smith wrote that he commenced translation immediately after he got the scrolls in 1833. But these documents were started 2 years later. What was Joseph doing that whole time?
  • Why were there three separate documents with this exact same alignment of hieroglyph vs. text?

These documents are simply comparing the Abraham text with the Book of Breathings character. For some reason, characters from the Book of Breathings were aligned with a paragraph each from the Book of Abraham.

Acted Alone? – Dr. Hugh Nibley suggests that Joseph Smith’s scribes acted on their own. The handwriting is not Joseph’s, but belongs to W.W. Phelps, Warren Parish, Oliver Cowdery, and Fredrick Williams. All these men happened to turn against Joseph Smith at least two or three years later. Phelps testified for Joseph’s arrest in 1838 and Parish pointed a pistol to his head in the Kirtland temple. Nibley’s theory is that they had each lost faith in Joseph Smith by 1835 and tried to reverse-engineer the Egyptian language from his revelations.

Or maybe, considering the scroll relates to the priesthood and temple endowment, the scribes were trying to decipher secrets about the temple with this comparison? Maybe they were working on a further project and gave up? But it can’t as simple as saying they acted alone. One of the Grammar and Alphabet documents is in Joseph Smith’s handwriting himself. So we know at least the Grammar and Alphabet effort was sanctioned by Joseph Smith.

Paragraph Translated From Single Character? – There is also Appleby’s description of a mummy as a daughter or an Egyptian priest, which he apparently got from Joseph Smith. That matches another document written by these scribes in the Egyptian Alphabet book. This document, written by Oliver Cowdery, lines up two hieroglyphs with two paragraphs of English text, much like the Abraham text comparisons:

“Katamin, Princess, daughter of Onitas of Egypt, who began to reign in the year of the world 2962. Katumin was born in the 30th year of the reign of her father, and died when she was 28 years old, which was the year 3020.”

If Joseph Smith translated this, it seems to indicate that he did indeed get an entire paragraph from one single hieroglyph. But curiously we have almost the exact same translation in a document by W.W.W.Phelps, but this time these two paragraphs are aligned with 26 hieroglyphs. So which is it? Did Joseph Smith translate a whole paragraph from a single hieroglyph character, or from a lot of characters?

Well here is the answer: The Phelps document flat-out claims it is “a translation” while the Cowdery document does not. So apparently Joseph Smith did not translate paragraphs of text from a single characters, as the Book of Abraham comparisons would lead you to believe.

We also have evidence that the Phelps translation of the 26 characters is true. A recent archeologist translation of Cowdery’s characters speaks of a “mistress” daughter of the name “Ta-shert-min.” Ta-shert-min vs. Katamin? The fragments dated later in history than ancient Egypt, remember, so it would make sense that we get a more Hellenistic-sounding version of an Egyptian name. Katamin is pretty similar to Tashertmin. So the translation written by Cowdery sounds plausible.

The only problem is that it takes 10 characters just to say the woman’s name. How could Joseph Smith get all that from the rest of the 26 characters? Either Cowdrey did not write down all the characters that he translated from, or the translation was not literal word-for-word, but a deeper description based somewhat on what the text said. This is likely the case, if you also consider that this translation does not correlate with the Egyptian counting method indicated in the Grammar and Alphabet.

Or maybe it didn’t come from Joseph Smith at all. In any case, it proves that the comparison documents that anti-Mormons typically point to as the “smoking gun” were not a translation effort.

Reverse Engineering The Egyptian Language?

If you compare the three documents that compare Book of Breathings characters next to Book of Abraham text, you find that two of the documents have the exact same mistakes crossed out and corrected. This suggests that they were written down as someone dictated aloud. The speaker apparently messed up what he was saying and corrected himself. Another clue is that the third, and probably earliest, document does not contain these mistakes but does contain something the others don’t: Abraham 1:1-3, which is the only portion of the written by W.W.Phelps.

Maybe Phelps began his comparison of the characters, and the other two scribes later filled in after he was gone, and then his document was filled in with what they later produced. But why?

My guess is Joseph Smith recognized that the Hor Book of Breathings scroll must have been important, because it contained a Facsimile that was based on an earlier diagram of Abraham. So after he had dictated the Abraham text from the Amenhotep roll, he asked his scribes to try to compare it to the Hor scroll. But the Book of Breathings scroll was much shorter, so they had to try to match up paragraphs with each character. After they got through a few chapters they realized there was no way it could match up, so they gave up.

This is a puzzle that frankly cannot be solved with such few clues. Maybe Joseph Smith intended to discover the temple endowment text inside. Or maybe it was an attempt at reverse-engineering the Egyptian language. But one other thing I will point out is that the characters are taken from the Book of Breathings right to left. How did Joseph Smith know that most Eygptian is written right to left?

I will examine the Grammar and Alphabet deeper some time. This has become literally a whole field of study, trying to figure it all out, and entire libraries have been written. If the Book of Abraham were a fraud and a phony, Joseph Smith sure went to a lot of effort to transcribe and write things down for no reason.

Also there are striking archaeological evidences to corroborate Joseph Smith’s Abraham translation. Verified ancient writings corroborate much of what Joseph Smith claimed, writings that Joseph Smith did not have access to.

A cursory comparison of witness accounts about the Joseph Smith collection suggests that the Hor Book of Breathings scroll was not the source of the Book of Abraham text that we have today. The Book of Breathings was an important temple text, and it would make sense that be included with Abraham text and Facsimiles about Abraham. These Facsimile vignettes in the scrolls were likely derivatives of much older vignettes, and required extra work to decipher. Some early church documents show the work they put into these Facsimile “translations,” and they also suggest that the Book of Breathings was not the source of the Abraham text.

I don’t assume to know how Joseph Smith translated the Book of Abraham. It could be that there was no direct writing source at all for the book, that it was pure inspiration. Elder Henry Eyring said: “If the only function of the scrolls was to awaken the Prophet to the idea of receiving such inspiration, they would have fulfilled their purpose.” But the evidence shows that the text was found in the Amenhotep which perished in the Chicago fire.