(Note: The following letter was sent by M. S. Brothers to seven apostles of the LDS Church in 2014. No response was ever received.)
I’m writing these letters because I believe you seven recipients possess the spirituality and intellectual objectivity to assure that in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, teaching the truth is more of a priority than merely defending past teachings. I’m not unaware that objectively evaluating long-held Mormon beliefs as if they were new to you, which practice I advocate, is extremely difficult, especially when you’ve not only devoted your lives to the church, but believed and defended the very teachings now under review. But this objective evaluation of Mormon teachings is now overdue by about 182 years. The more we delay it, the more we’ll continue to bleed members whose legitimate historical and doctrinal questions the church can’t or won’t answer. Many of these questioning individuals already have, or in the future will lose their belief in the Book of Mormon, while others will lose faith in religion itself, simply because so many other beliefs they used to accept have proven unreliable. It’s this tragedy I hope to avert, and I trust you that you do, too.
In this letter I’ll attempt to evaluate the Book of Abraham from the perspective of a neutral and objective investigator who’s familiarizing himself or herself with it for the first time. I don’t do this because the teachings of this book are in some way damaging to believers; they are not. I do so because analysis of this book informs the discussion about whether our church has adopted the practice of defending its past teachings without carefully determining whether they’re of God or not. This evaluation will also consider the merits of the article posted on the church’s website entitled Translation and Historicity of the Book of Abraham. Some of the information discussed below regarding the Book of Abraham is undoubtedly known to you, but as you read on, I hope you can look at it, temporarily at least, through the eyes of someone who, unlike you, wasn’t taught to accept it more than half a century ago.
The posited hypothetical person whose perspective I’ll try to represent herein is a well-read, intellectually curious, devout non-Mormon Christian. After thoroughly studying and praying about another book of LDS scripture, the Book of Mormon, he or she has reached the surprising conclusion that it was indeed exactly what it purported to be—another testament of Christ, revealed in the latter days by the gift and power of God. Therefore, this individual is neither burdened by preconceived notions for or against Mormon truth claims, nor predisposed to defend those who believe or don’t believe the Book of Abraham to be divinely inspired.
As he or she has done before with the Book of Mormon, the investigator writes down every authenticity-related observation and question that arises in reading the background history and text of the Book of Abraham. No question is too pointed, since he or she feels no need to protect any apologist from difficult issues. At the same time, this seeker doesn’t question the possibility God could reveal new latter-day scriptures, since he or she has already accepted the Book of Mormon as such. He or she generates the following commentary:
The Process Whereby Joseph Obtained the Papyri
Preliminarily, it seems odd that the discovery of the papyri appears to have been by coincidence. Joseph Smith never claimed God or an angel instructed him to buy mummies and papyri from anyone. No divine influence was ever alleged in this process. Instead, Joseph’s account implies nothing other than mere coincidence and luck occurred when he bought two papyrus scrolls along with four mummies. One of these contained the “writings of Abraham while he was in Egypt, called the Book of Abraham, written by his own hand, upon papyrus.” See Pearl of Great Price, p. 29. He also claimed the other scroll, or “roll”, contained the writings of Joseph of Egypt. History of the Church 2: 236. (For evidence there were only two scrolls, see WW Phelps’ letter to Sally Phelps, pages 19-20, July 1835 and Oliver Cowdery letter to William Frye, December 22, 1835. Both these men were constant eyewitnesses to the artifacts and even assisted Joseph Smith in trying to devise the Egyptian alphabet. The church article omits this strong evidence of there being only two scrolls in favor of suggesting a much greater body of papyri. This latter suggestion pads the essay’s contention, argued in the alternative, that the translation might have come from one of those papyri that no longer exists. This suggestion is untenable, as shown below.) Moreover, since the seller of the artifacts, Michael Chandler, had originally possessed eleven mummies and an unknown number of scrolls, and had already sold seven of the mummies to previous buyers in other areas, Joseph was doubly fortunate that no one had already purchased the two valuable scrolls that remained. Of course, the Lord could have had a hand in causing the right papyri to fall into Joseph’s hands, but neither Joseph Smith nor anyone else asserted he’d received any divine guidance in the purchase. Thus, the process of discovering the book of Abraham papyri was oddly coincidental and inauspicious, given the book’s claimed status as an ancient sacred text. The process was also strikingly unlike that used for the gold plates, which were revealed to Joseph Smith by an angel who momentously appeared three times during the night to announce their location and tremendous importance, and once a year for four years to repeat his instructions. It seems incongruous to assume the Lord would bring about the discovery of the handwritten words of Abraham so passively and casually.
Just as puzzling is the fact that the alleged writings of Joseph of Egypt, which at first glance would have just as much significance as Abraham’s words, were never translated after being purchased. Why would God reveal the author of these writings and then never produce a translation? Would God intend that such treasured writings be treated so lightly, if they were authentic?
The Process Whereby Joseph Translated Ancient Egyptian Hieroglyphics
A monumental question naturally arising from the book of Abraham is how Joseph Smith produced the translation (although the LDS church website article on the subject shows the church is no longer sure it was a translation, as is discussed later herein). Joseph Smith’s inability to read the Nephites’ writing on the golden plates required the help of “interpreters”, as they’re called in the Book of Mormon, or the Urim and Thummim, as Joseph later referred to them. Later he used a seer stone to complete the Book of Mormon translation process. But not a word of the Book of Mormon was translated without the help of these instruments, and after the Book of Mormon was published, Joseph never again possessed or used those instruments. How then could he read the Egyptian hieroglyphics and produce an English translation, with no Urim and Thummim or seer stone assisting him?
The difficulty in answering this question is heightened by noting that after publishing the Book of Mormon, Joseph assiduously studied Hebrew, an ancient language, in the School of the Prophets, but never did learn that language, and later discontinued his efforts. And although he never took any lessons in reading ancient Egyptian, a written language more ancient than Hebrew, he did eventually produce, after acquiring the papyri, what he claimed was an Egyptian alphabet and rules of Egyptian grammar. But Mormon and non-Mormon Egyptologists have determined that his alphabet and the rules of grammar were completely in error. The LDS church admits this in its article on the subject on its website. These facts seem to rebut the hypothesis offered by the church near the end of its article that merely viewing the ancient writings might have triggered a revelation from God by which the ancient text was revealed. If this had been the case, Joseph would have had no reason to study any language’s alphabet or grammatical rules.
The Length of Time Taken to Produce such a Small Book
Both the theory that Joseph translated the text by reading the hieroglyphics, and the alternate theory that God revealed the text to him through some other means not involving language translation are weakened considerably by the fact that the Book of Abraham took so long to produce. The short work was seven years in the making. The church article concedes that Joseph began deciphering the papyrus scroll in 1835, but didn’t produce the book’s few pages until 1842. If the book were a revelation from God, one would expect its publication to be more urgent, and it seemingly wouldn’t take more than two weeks to complete, at most. None of Joseph’s other claimed revelations, including the longest ones in the Doctrine and Covenants, had required more than three days, even when counting the ones which had material added to the initial versions. The translation of what is now the 531-page Book of Mormon, once it begun in earnest, took less than three months.
Papyri now Possessed by the LDS Church have been Conclusively Proven to be the ones used by Joseph Smith to Produce the Book of Abraham, despite Arguments to the Contrary in the Church’s Website Essay, and Smith’s Rendering of the Egyptian Text has been shown by Egyptologists not to be an Authentic Translation.
At least parts of the two papyrus scrolls purchased by Joseph Smith were found in the 20th century in the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art, and given back to the church. The evidence is overwhelming and irrefutable that the papyri now possessed by the church are the same ones Joseph purported to translate. This evidence stems from two extremely important points which the LDS church article doesn’t even mention: First, the Pearl of Great Price contains a facsimile of the same drawing that is found on the church’s papyri, and this drawing, referred to as Facsimile No. 1 by Joseph Smith, is described in great detail in the very text of the first chapter the Book of Abraham. In fact, the text has Abraham telling the reader that he has produced the drawing with his writing to illustrate the story he is telling. Note these words from Abraham 1: 12-15:
12 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. 13 It was made after the form of a bedstead, such as was had among the Chaldeans, and it stood before the gods of Elkenah, Libnah, Mahmackrah, Korash, and also a god like unto that of Pharaoh, king of Egypt. 14 That you may have an understanding of these gods, I have given you the fashion of them in the figures at the beginning, which manner of figures is called by the Chaldeans Rahleenos, which signifies hieroglyphics. 15 And as they lifted up their hands upon me, that they might offer me up and take away my life, behold, I lifted up my voice unto the Lord my God, and the Lord hearkened and heard, and he filled me with the vision of the Almighty, and the angel of his presence stood by me, and immediately unloosed my bands. . .
All of the figures described in the above four verses are not only visually observed in the Pearl of Great Price Facsimile 1, but bear the identifying labels Joseph Smith assigned to them.
The second irrefutable proof linking the church’s papyrus to the one Joseph Smith purported to translate is the fact that the Figure 3 facsimile found in our Pearl of Great Price contains the name of Horus (or “Hor”), the same man whose breathing rights constitute the subject of the text found in the church papyrus. After being returned to the Mormon church, the papyri had eventually been translated by eminently-qualified LDS and non-LDS Egyptologists. These experts’ translations of the hieroglyphics agreed with each other in every major respect, but bore no resemblance whatsoever to Smith’s translation. According to all the egyptologists, the papyri scrolls contained a standard, oft-encountered funerary text entitled Hor’s Book of Breathings, but contained no mention of Abraham or any of the subjects contained in Joseph’s version. Since illustrations like Facsimile 3 are always found at the very end of Egyptian funerary scrolls, this illustration was obviously at the end of Hor’s Book of Breathings—the same scroll possessed by the church. These facts have been established by LDS and non-LDS Egyptologists alike. The church may not have the entire scroll, but without a doubt Hor’s Book of Breathings is the one Joseph Smith produced as the Book of Abraham.
In addition to his rendering of the text, Smith had also provided translations of three drawings (two of which are described above) contained with the hieroglyphics on the papyri. His translations of these drawings, now found within the fifteen pages of the Book of Abraham in the Pearl of Great Price, have also proven to be erroneous by the aforementioned Egyptologists. [Note to reader: The LDS egyptologists who first interpreted the Egyptian writings and illustrations on the papyri were John Gee and Michael Rhodes. Since that time, Stephen E. Thompson, another LDS egyptologist, has flatly stated his agreement that the Book of Abraham could not have come from Joseph Smith’s translation of the papyri, because the papyri have nothing to do with Abraham.]
Surprisingly, notwithstanding the evidence above, the church’s essay attempts to create doubt over whether the rediscovered papyri fragments are from the scroll Joseph Smith purported to translate:
The relationship between those fragments and the text we have today is largely a matter of conjecture. . .
Some have assumed that the hieroglyphs adjacent to and surrounding facsimile 1 must be a source for the text of the book of Abraham. But this claim rests on the assumption that a vignette and its adjacent text must be associated in meaning. In fact, it was not uncommon for ancient Egyptian vignettes to be placed some distance from their associated commentary. . .
It is likely futile to assess Joseph’s ability to translate papyri when we now have only a fraction of the papyri he had in his possession. Eyewitnesses spoke of “a long roll” or multiple “rolls” of papyrus.32 Since only fragments survive, it is likely that much of the papyri accessible to Joseph when he translated the book of Abraham is not among these fragments. The loss of a significant portion of the papyri means the relationship of the papyri to the published text cannot be settled conclusively by reference to the papyri. . .
Gospel Topics essay, Translation and Historicity of the Book of Abraham at LDS Church official website lds.org.
It’s puzzling that the church’s essay not only omits the most important evidence bearing on the papyri’s relation to the book of Abraham, but also propounds the above misleading and easily-refuted arguments. Only if the article’s authors, who remain unidentified, had never read the Book of Abraham’s first chapter could they have been unaware of the undeniable relationship between the text of that chapter and the facsimile drawing that precedes it.
(Although it would be possible that the translation could have come from more than just one scroll of papyri in the church’s possession, Joseph Smith himself claimed this wasn’t the case, stating the book of Abraham came from one scroll. See Messenger and Advocate, Dec. 1835, 233-37. And even if it had come from more than one scroll, that wouldn’t negate the fact that his translation of the one we have was in error.)
The Assertion in the Church Essay that the Text was a Revelation as Opposed to a Translation is Contradicted by Joseph Smith and All Church History Accounts
After admitting the extent to which Joseph Smith attempted to construct Egyptian alphabets and grammar, the church essay asserts this: “The Lord did not require Joseph Smith to have knowledge of Egyptian. By the gift and power of God, Joseph received knowledge about the life and teachings of Abraham.” This statement is flatly contradicted by Joseph Smith himself, and by the sheer weight of the church’s own historical records. No one who worked on deciphering the Egyptian with Joseph has ever suggested that studying and interpreting the individual hieroglyphics was unnecessary to the process of producing the text. Repeatedly, Joseph wrote about his labors in doing exactly that, and never made any claim whatsoever that the book of Abraham was anything other than a linguistic translation. See History of the Church 2: 235-36, 238, 289, 318, 320, 348-51. Joseph also never mentioned a revelation from God, but rather, made plain that this translation was dependent on his own ability to read Egyptian, and his credentials as a translator. When after seven years he produced the book, he captioned it as being
TRANSLATED FROM THE PAPYRUS, BY JOSEPH SMITH
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.
It’s certainly noteworthy that the Mormon church never represented the book of Abraham to be anything but a conventional, linguistic translation until the papyri came back into church hands and were translated by qualified egyptologists. When Joseph’s translation proved to have no linguistic merit, the church’s historical narrative changed. What had been a translation for over a century and a half was suddenly reclassified. It was now either a translation of other papyri no longer in existence, or a revelation triggered by poring over Egyptian characters.
Doctrinal and Factual Contradictions Created by the Book of Abraham
Previously unknown doctrine is created in the book of Abraham concerning premortal events in heaven. These doctrines needn’t be discussed here because their presence isn’t evidence for or against the book’s authenticity. Other teachings do bear on this question, however. According to the narrative in the first chapter of the book, Abraham seeks to be a “rightful heir” of the title of “High Priest.” This hereditary position, we are told, is passed down “from the fathers,” and God tells Abraham “I will put upon thee. . .even the Priesthood of thy father.” See Abraham 1: 2-4, 18 and 2:11. This concept is in line with Joseph Smith’s propensity in the Doctrine and Covenants to highlight priesthood hierarchies and lines of authority. This propensity distinguishes the Mormon church from other Christian faiths. But Paul taught in the Bible that the order of high priests to which Melchizedek and Jesus belonged was not hereditary like the Levitical Priesthood, see Hebrews 7: 1-17. In fact, Paul’s sermon concerning Melchizedek makes clear that Abraham was subordinate to Melchizedek, because Melchizedek was a chosen and holy high priest whose priesthood was “without descent”, and Abraham was not. If Abraham were also a high priest, Paul’s sermon would make no sense. Paul, himself from the tribe of Benjamin and descended from Abraham, and an expert on his own Jewish religion, certainly would have mentioned Abraham’s own status as high priest if he had held such, but instead, he contrasted the great Abraham with the even greater Melchizedek.
The Book of Mormon sermon by Alma corroborates Paul’s words in two ways. First, when Alma discussed Melchizedek, he noted that “even our father Abraham” paid tithes to him because he (Melchizedek) belonged to the holy order of high priests. See Alma 13: 14-19. Again, this explanation by Alma wouldn’t make sense if Abraham were also a high priest. Nephi in the book of Helaman made a similar point, speaking of prophets dating back to Abraham who had known and spoken of Christ’s coming, and of a separate group of high priests after Christ’s holy order that had also known and taught these things prior to Abraham. See Helaman 8: 16-19. Though the Book of Mormon and Bible speakers and writers discuss Abraham repeatedly and at length, never do they state, or even imply, that he was a high priest under the order of Melchizedek.
Second, Alma also emphasized in his sermon that those who were called and ordained to be high priests after this holy order were selected because of their “exceeding faith and good works. . . having chosen good. . . on account of their exceeding faith and repentance, and their righteousness before God, they choosing to repent and work righteousness rather than to perish. . .” See Alma 13: 3, 10. This ordination obviously couldn’t be inherited, since one couldn’t qualify for it without already having previously repented and exercised exceptional faith and righteousness. Presumably, if inheritance were a key aspect of receiving this priesthood, Alma, Nephi and Paul would have said so, since this priesthood was in each case the topic under discussion.
Curiously, Doctrine and Covenants sections 84 and 107, both of which, like the Book of Abraham, were introduced by Joseph Smith, also describe a lineage-related, father-to-son passing of the Melchizedek priesthood, thus creating a doctrinal conflict with the Bible and Book of Mormon. In choosing which scriptural teachings to accept, the Bible and Book of Mormon should be deemed authoritative. I have received an intellectual and spiritual witness that the Bible and Book of Mormon are divinely inspired, just as the Book of Mormon declares itself and the Bible to be, and just as angels testified to Joseph Smith and the Three Witnesses. As has been shown previously, neither the book of Abraham nor the Doctrine and Covenants stand on that same firm footing.
Abraham’s narrative also describes the Chaldean cities of Ur and Haran as being under Egyptian religious and political hegemony in Abraham’s time. This appears in conflict with virtually every history written concerning that period. Egypt exercised no religious or political control at all over these areas in Abraham’s time (approximately 20th century B.C.) and no Egyptian, Sumerian or Assyrian writings from that era assert otherwise.
Other anomalies (though admittedly minor) discrediting the Book of Abraham’s authenticity is how improbable it appears that Abraham would tell his story by writing in Egyptian instead of his own primary language, and that he would adopt Egyptian art motifs to accompany his narrative. Moreover, what possible reason could there be for this account, which condemns Pharoah and the Egyptian religion, to be wrapped up with Egyptian mummies? Wouldn’t Egyptians want something a little more friendly to their beliefs wrapped with the body being prepared for the hereafter? Abraham’s own language, likely some mixture of Assyrian and early Aramaic, was easily advanced enough to use in describing his past experiences; indeed, it was the language used by his own fathers and posterity to keep the biblical record. Of course, if the Church’s new hypothesis is correct, Abraham didn’t write anything in Egyptian at all—despite the flat contradiction of Joseph Smith’s claims to the contrary that this represents. Facing new evidence carbon-dating the papyri to approximately 100 CE, which is almost two millennia after Abraham, the Church has had to change its story. It now suggests in its essay that the papyri weren’t written in Abraham’s own hand, but perhaps were written by some unknown Egyptian who was quoting Abraham.
The church essay doesn’t address any of the doctrinal and factual conflicts discussed above.
In footnote 46, the very last footnote of the church’s essay, it’s conceded that some of the content of the book of Abraham was contained in other extrabiblical accounts of Abraham which had been previously published, mentioning Josephus’ Antiquities of the Jews and the Book of Jasher as examples. The church quickly adds that it isn’t known whether Joseph Smith had read these works or not. Once again, very important information has been held back from the reader. The Book of Jasher had been published in America in 1840, and a September 1, 1842 Times and Seasons editorial, written while Joseph Smith was editor, cited to it. See Times and Seasons 3: 902. The Book of Jasher was immediately widely read and well-known for several of its claims, including the ones that Abraham’s father had been an idolater, and that Abraham had refused to worship his father’s idols and had destroyed them. In the Book of Jasher, however, the idols were those worshipped by the great king Nimrod of biblical fame, having no relation to the Egyptian Pharoah. Josephus’ work was also well known among those who studied Israelite or Jewish history, and it contained a noteworthy account that Abraham had instructed the Egyptians in astronomy and mathematics while he sojourned there. Since the Book of Abraham text contains these same assertions, it would seem appropriate to mention this fact in the body of the essay instead of at the end of the last footnote. Instead, the church essay merely argues that other extrabiblical and apocryphal writings tend to lend corroboration for some of the events described in the book of Abraham.
As you can see from the above notes, it is difficult to defend the authenticity of the Book of Abraham, even if the reviewer affirmatively believes in Book of Mormon authenticity. The non-Mormon investigator is gentle in addressing the fallacies and misleading statements contained within the church’s essay. Mormons who study the Book of Abraham carefully, however, are not at all gentle in criticizing what they see (correctly, I believe) as intellectual dishonesty on the part of the LDS essay writer(s) in omitting inconvenient facts and mischaracterizing as weak and confusing the evidence against authenticity. Hopefully, though, we can remember we claim to be the Church of Jesus Christ, and therefore no longer countenance any form of dishonesty in defending old, unchallenged beliefs.