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Book of Abraham/How was it produced
The method by which Joseph Smith produced the Book of Abraham
Jump to Subtopic:
- Doctrine and Covenants and Church History Study Guide: "These papyri contain authentic Egyptian writings, but they do not date to the time of Abraham, nor do they contain the actual personally handwritten account of Abraham"
- Question: How was the text of the Book of Abraham produced by Joseph Smith?
- Question: Did Joseph use his seer stone to receive the text of the Book of Abraham in the same manner as he did for the Book of Mormon?
- Question: Do we have all of the papyri that Joseph Smith had?
- Question: How does the Grammar and Alphabet of the Egyptian Language (GAEL) relate to the Book of Abraham?
- Question: Were the characters on the papyri written by Abraham himself?
- Question: Does the papyri consist of Egyptian funerary documents?
- Question: Do the papyri date back to the time of Abraham?
- Question: Could Joseph Smith translate Egyptian?
- Question: Are the statements of Abraham 1:12,14 about the altar and Gods at the “beginning of the record” significant for the Book of Abraham?
Doctrine and Covenants and Church History Study Guide: "These papyri contain authentic Egyptian writings, but they do not date to the time of Abraham, nor do they contain the actual personally handwritten account of Abraham"
"Unit 31: Day 2, The Coming Forth of the Pearl of Great Price," Doctrine and Covenants and Church History Study Guide for Home-Study Seminary Students (2013):
In 1966, 11 fragments of papyri the Prophet Joseph Smith once had were discovered in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. These papyri contain authentic Egyptian writings, but they do not date to the time of Abraham, nor do they contain the actual personally handwritten account of Abraham. It is important to remember that only a few fragments and not all of the papyri that Joseph Smith possessed have been found. The book of Abraham may have been translated from papyri that have not been recovered. These lost papyri may have contained copies of Abraham’s writings.
At the present time we simply do not know the exact nature of the relationship between the book of Abraham and the papyri Joseph Smith possessed. There are various theories proposed as to how the prophet translated these writings, but we simply do not know the details. We do know that the Prophet Joseph Smith translated the book of Abraham by the gift and power of God. 
Question: How was the text of the Book of Abraham produced by Joseph Smith?
The Book of Abraham was claimed to have been received by revelation
Richard Turley notes that the Book of Abraham was received by revelation:
"Very quickly, let me just say a few things about it very simple. Number 1, again, it was received by revelation."
Richard Turley, Questions Asked at 2010 Swedish Fireside
The questions surrounding the Book of Abraham are complex, and involve a number of disciplines and sub-disciplines, including: Egyptology (including Egyptian archaeology, Egyptian iconography, Egyptian religion, Egyptian history, papyrology, etc.), Syro-Palestinian archaeology, biblical studies, textual criticism, Mormon history, Mormon theology, English paleography and manuscript transmission, etc. As such, any approach to the Book of Abraham or the Joseph Smith Papyri must be conscious of how these various disciplines (with their respective methods) can be used, or misused, in studying the Book of Abraham.
19th century sources confirm that the text of the Book of Abraham was received by revelation
Consider these two quotes, the first from John Whitmer, who was Church Historian from 1831 until his excommunication in 1838, and the second from Warren Parrish, who was one of the scribes during the translation.
John Whitmer said,
"Joseph the Seer saw these Record[s] and by the revelation of Jesus Christ could translate these records . . . which when all translated will be a pleasing history and of great value to the saints." 
Warren Parrish said,
"I have set by his side and penned down the translation of the Egyptian Hieroglyphicks [sic] as he claimed to receive it by direct inspiration from Heaven." 
A more detailed essay describing the translation of the Book of Abraham was done by Pearl of Great Price Central and may be found by following the link above.
Question: Did Joseph use his seer stone to receive the text of the Book of Abraham in the same manner as he did for the Book of Mormon?
There is second-hand information that suggests Joseph Smith used his seer stone in the translation of the Book of Abraham
There is also second-hand information that suggests Joseph Smith used his seer stone (or what came to be called the "Urim and Thummim") in the translation of the Book of Abraham; though these accounts must be accepted carefully because of their secondary nature.
Wilford Woodruff said,
"The Lord is blessing Joseph with power to reveal the mysteries of the kingdom of God; to translate through the Urim and Thummim ancient records and hieroglyphics old as Abraham or Adam which caused our hearts to burn within us while we behold their glorious truths opened unto us." 
"The Prophet translated the part of these writings which, as I have said is contained in the Pearl of Great Price, and known as the Book of Abraham. Thus you see one of the first gifts bestowed by the Lord for the benefit of His people, was that of revelation-the gift to translate, by the aid of the Urim and Thummim, the gift of bringing to light old and ancient records." 
The official position of the Church is that the Book of Abraham is "an inspired translation of the writings of Abraham. Joseph Smith began the translation in 1835 after obtaining some Egyptian papyri."  Anything beyond this is speculation, and does not constitute official Church doctrine relative to the Book of Abraham's origins. Nevertheless, it's clear from the historical evidence that Joseph Smith was not attempting a scholarly translation of the Book of Abraham à la Jean-François Champollion or other Egyptologists, but rather produced a revelatory translation (see Richard Turley's comments below). The exact nature of this revelatory translation is uncertain, with various theories having been offered over the years.
Question: Do we have all of the papyri that Joseph Smith had?
There is no question that we are currently missing some papyri
Even critics of the Book of Abraham must acknowledge this. For example, we are missing the originals to Facsimiles 2 and 3. The question therefore is: how much papyrus are we missing? Professor John Gee has estimated, based on historical eyewitness testimony, papyrilogical considerations, and mathematical calculations, that we're missing a sizable portion of the Joseph Smith Papyri. Professor Gee further argues the likelihood that the text of the Book of Abraham translated (again, via revelation, and not by scholarly means) by Joseph Smith was contained in this missing portion of papyri.  Professor Gee is not without his critics, however, who argue instead that we're missing only a small portion of the original papyri. 
As such, this is still an open question. Further research is being conducted that will hopefully shed further light on this question. In the mean time, however, Professor Gee's so-called "Missing Papyrus Theory" cannot merely be dismissed. Those who struggle with the Book of Abraham controversy must deal with the evidence presented by Professor Gee.
Question: How does the Grammar and Alphabet of the Egyptian Language (GAEL) relate to the Book of Abraham?
The exact relationship between the documents referred to as the "Grammar and Alphabet of the Egyptian Language" and the Book of Abraham have not yet been determined
Professor Brian M. Hauglid of Brigham Young University is currently undertaking a critical text edition of the so-called "Kirtland Egyptian Papers," or, more properly, the "Grammar and Alphabet of the Egyptian Language" (or GAEL), in conjunction with scholars at the Joseph Smith Papers.  Professor Hauglid has published some preliminary thoughts on his research, in addition to comments made by other Mormon scholars. 
Before we pass judgment on the GAEL, including it's relationship to the Book of Abraham text, we should be patient and see what Professor Hauglid and other scholars will release in the future, per Richard Turley's advice. This remains a relatively under-studied area of the Book of Abraham debate, and it would be foolish to jump to conclusions before all the relevant data is presented for scholarly scrutiny.
"Again, this concept of translation if you look at the 7th section of the Doctrine and Covenants, it’s a translation of a parchment sent up by the apostle john in the new testament. There’s no evidence it was anywhere around Joseph at the time that he translated it. OK, so again, translation is not character for character translation like you and I think about it, OK?"
Question: Were the characters on the papyri written by Abraham himself?
[Brother Turley]: There are lots of theories on that. The church does believe that the book of Abraham is the word of God and if you read the book of Abraham, there are doctrines and principles you will understand that are important to you. That is the church’s position. Exactly how Joseph Smith did it? There are lots of scholarly debates going on about that. But there’s excellent work going on at BYU that should be out in the next year."
Question: Does the Joseph Smith papyri consist of Egyptian funerary documents?
[Brother Turley]: The papyrus that we have we know what books those are from Egyptian.
Question: Do the Joseph Smith papyri date back to the time of Abraham?
Richard Turley: "There’s a difference between the date of the copy and the date of the text"
[Brother Turley]: There’s a difference between the date of the copy and the date of the text. So the text, yes, we believe is older. The actual copy could be later."
This is a very important point to keep in mind. There is a difference between the date of a text and the date of a particular manuscript of a text. For example, biblical scholars recognize that even though our earliest manuscripts for the books of the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) are currently found among the Dead Sea Scrolls, which date to circa 200-100 BCE, the date of the composition of the text of the books themselves go back many centuries.
The same point applies to the Book of Abraham. As Professor Kerry Muhlestein explains:
Critics say that if this papyrus was written in the second century BC it could not possibly have been written by Abraham himself. In regard to this assumption, I ask, who said this particular papyrus was written by Abraham himself? The heading does not indicate that Abraham had written that particular copy but rather that he was the author of the original. What these critics have done is confuse the difference between a text and a manuscript. For example, many people have a copy of J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings; each has a manuscript copy of the text that Tolkien originally wrote. A text, regardless of how many copies of it exist in the world, is written by one author. However, each copy of that text is a manuscript.
The earliest known copies of the book of Isaiah date to hundreds of years after the prophet’s death. Yet this has not led to the conclusion that Isaiah was not the author of the book of Isaiah. Clearly the manuscripts we have are copies of the original text that he wrote during his lifetime. We all know that when an author of the ancient world wrote something, if those writings were to survive or be disseminated, the text had to be copied again and again and again, for generation upon generation. When the heading states that the text was written by Abraham’s own hand, it notes who the author is, not who copied down the particular manuscript that came into Joseph’s possession. If critics had carefully thought through this issue, they would never have raised it.
These issues also highlight the question of how the Book of Abraham came to be in Egypt in the first place. There are a dizzying number of possibilities. Abraham himself was in Egypt, as was his great-grandson Joseph and all of his Israelite descendants for hundreds of years thereafter. After the Exodus, Israelites continued to travel to and live in Egypt. After the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem, large groups of Jews settled in Egypt and created longstanding and thriving communities, even to the point that they built a temple. It was during this time period that Joseph Smith Papyri 1, 10, and 11 were created. Copies of these papyri could have moved back and forth between Egypt and Israel during any of these eras. 
Question: Could Joseph Smith translate Egyptian?
At that time, nobody could translate Egyptian . The only way Joseph could translate would be through revelation.
Many students of the Book of Abraham have asked if Joseph Smith could have had access to means that he might learn Egyptian and translate the Book of Abraham and/or if he ever claimed to be able to translate Egyptian mechanically. Joseph couldn't translate Egyptian. At that time, hardly anyone in the United States could translate Egyptian. Jean-Francois Champollion would only recently (relatively speaking) be completing his transliteration of the Rosetta Stone. Joseph was able to receive the text of the Book of Abraham in the same manner that he did for the Book of Mormon, by revelation.
Some critics believe that Joseph claimed he knew Egyptian.
Some critics believe that Joseph claimed to know Egyptian for a couple of reasons.
One of these is an 1844 publication entitled Appeal to the Freemen of the State of Vermont, the "Brave Green Mountain Boys," and Honest Men that was purportedly written by Joseph Smith and in which an appeal to the GAEL is made to provide a translation for an Egyptian-sounding phrase. However, this publication has been demonstrated to have been ghostwritten by W.W. Phelps acting as Joseph Smith. Additionally, it would have been written after all the translation of the Book of Abraham was complete thus making it so that, prior to and during the translation, Joseph would not have claimed to know Egyptian.
A second reason is the GAEL itself and Joseph's use of it when doing his one-character "translation" of the Kinderhook Plates. As Latter-day Saint historians Don Bradley and Mark Ashurst McGee have observed in their definitive treatment of the Kinderhook plates, "[Joseph] Smith’s autonomous use of the Egyptian Alphabet book...in the translation of the Kinderhook plates shows that he considered it a legitimate translation tool." However, as the Gospel Topics Essay on the Book of Abraham has stated, the relationship of the GAEL to the Book of Abraham is not certain. Some have argued that the GAEL represents an attempt by Joseph Smith's scribes to reverse engineer the translation of the Book of Abraham to the papyri without the aid of revelation. If that is true, then Joseph Smith is not necessarily claiming by revelation to know how to translate Egyptian mechanically as academic translators do today with grammar books, dictionaries, etc. It simply means that Joseph received a translation of the papyri by revelation and then without the aid of revelation tried to discern the meaning of the characters on the papyri to try and learn Egyptian.
The final reason comes from the Gospel Topics Essay on the Book of Abraham on churchofjesuschrist.org which states the following:
Phelps apparently viewed Joseph Smith as uniquely capable of understanding the Egyptian characters: “As no one could translate these writings,” he told his wife, “they were presented to President Smith. He soon knew what they were.”
This quotation from Phelps has been interpreted by critics to mean that Joseph Smith was claiming to know the Egyptian language. However, it is clear from context that this did not mean that Joseph was claiming to have a working knowledge of Egyptian that he could use to translate documents mechanically, but that he was capable of discerning the meaning of the writings by revelation given to him because of his role and stewardship as prophet of God and President of the Church.
Question: Are the statements of Abraham 1:12,14 about the altar and Gods at the “beginning of the record” significant for the Book of Abraham?
The earliest manuscripts of Abraham 1:12,14 have the text squeezed either between lines of the text or in the upper margin of the manuscript.
There are several criticisms that attach themselves to Abraham 1:12,14. It is postulated that they require that Abraham be familiar with the facsimiles themselves, that they complicate the Missing Papyrus Theory, and so on.
The earliest manuscripts of Abraham 1:12 and 14 have the text squeezed either between lines of text or in the upper margin of the earliest manuscript of these verses. Abraham 1:12 is in the handwriting of Frederick G. Williams, one of Joseph's scribes.
Furthermore, reading the text of the Book of Abraham becomes smoother with the omission of these phrases. The translation retains coherency even without the textual insertions. Scholarly consensus is that these lines in Abraham 1:12 and 1:14 were later additions to the text—perhaps even with the approval of Joseph Smith. Thus they are not significant to the integrity of the Book of Abraham.
To see citations to the critical sources for these claims, click here
- "Unit 31: Day 2, The Coming Forth of the Pearl of Great Price," Doctrine and Covenants and Church History Study Guide for Home-Study Seminary Students, LDS.org (2013)
- John Whitmer, quoted in Karen Lynn Davidson, Richard L. Jensen, and David J. Whittaker, eds., The Joseph Smith Papers, Histories, Vol. 2: Assigned Histories, 1831–1847 (Salt Lake City, Utah: The Church Historian’s Press, 2012), 86.
- Warren Parrish, letter to the editor, Painesville Republican, 15 February 1838, cited in John Gee, "Some Puzzles from the Joseph Smith Papyri," FARMS Review 20, no. 1 (2008): 115, n. 4.
- Wilford Woodruff journal, February 19, 1842.
- Orson Pratt, Journal of Discourses, 20:65.
- The Pearl of Great Price–––Introduction (2013 ed.). Elsewhere official Church publications say concerning the Book of Abraham: "The book of Abraham is a translation that the Prophet Joseph Smith made from some Egyptian papyri." Old Testament: Gospel Doctrine Teacher's Manual (Salt Lake City, Utah: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1996), 1.
- John Gee, "Eyewitness, Hearsay, and Physical Evidence of the Joseph Smith Papyri," in The Disciple as Witness: Essays on Latter-day Saint History and Doctrine in Honor of Richard Lloyd Anderson, ed. Stephen D. Ricks, Donald W. Parry, and Andrew H. Hedges (Provo, Utah: FARMS, 2000), 175–218; "Some Puzzles from the Joseph Smith Papyri," 115–123; "Formulas and Faith," Journal of the Book of Mormon and Other Restoration Scripture 21, no. 1 (2012): 60–65; "Book of Abraham, I Presume," online at http://www.fairlds.org/fair-conferences/2012-fair-conference/2012-book-of-abraham-i-presume; See also http://en.fairmormon.org/Book_of_Abraham/Size_of_missing_papyrus
- Andrew W. Cook and Christopher C. Smith, “The Original Length of the Scroll of Hôr,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 43, no. 4 (Winter 2010), 1–42; Andrew W. Cook, "Formulas and Facts: A Response to John Gee," Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 45, no. 3 (Fall 2012): 1–10.
- These documents are free to view online at the Joseph Smith Papers website.
- Brian M. Hauglid, A Textual History of the Book of Abraham: Manuscripts and Editions (Provo, Utah: Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship, 2010), 1–20, 225–231; “Thoughts on the Book of Abraham,” in No Weapon Shall Prosper: New Light on Sensitive Issues, ed. Robert L. Millet (Provo, Utah: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 2011), 245–258; Gee, "Eyewitness, Hearsay, and Physical Evidence," 195–203; Hugh Nibley, "The Meaning of the Kirtland Egyptian Papers," reprinted in An Approach to the Book of Abraham, The Collected Works of Hugh Nibley: Volume 18, ed. John Gee (Provo, Utah: Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 2009), 502–568.
- Kerry Muhlestein, “Egyptian Papyri and the Book of Abraham: A Faithful, Egyptological Point of View,” in No Weapon Shall Prosper: New Light on Sensitive Issues, 230–31. See also http://en.fairmormon.org/Book_of_Abraham/By_his_own_hand
- Robert K. Ritner, "'Translation and Historicity of the Book of Abraham'— A Response," <http://www.mormonthink.com/essays-book-of-abraham.htm> (21 May 2020).
- Samuel M. Brown, "The Translator and the Ghost Writer: Joseph Smith and W.W. Phelps," Journal of Mormon History Vol. 34, No. 1 (Winter 2008): 26–62; Bruce A.Van Orden, "William W. Phelps's Service in Nauvoo as Joseph Smith's Political Clerk," BYU Studies 32, nos. 1, 2 (1992): 81–94; Bruce A. Van Orden, We'll Sing and We'll Shout: The Life and Times of W. W. Phelps (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company; Provo, UT: BYU Religious Studies Center, 2018), 356–60.
- Don Bradley and Mark Ashurst-McGee, "'President Joseph Has Translated a Portion' Joseph Smith and the Mistranslation of the Kinderhook Plates," in Producing Ancient Scripture: Joseph Smith's Translation Projects in the Development of Mormon Christianity, eds. Michael Hubbard MacKay, Mark Ashurst-McGee, and Brian M. Hauglid (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 2020), 517.
- W. W. Phelps to Sally Phelps, July 19–20, 1835, in Bruce A. Van Orden, “Writing to Zion: The William W. Phelps Kirtland Letters (1835–1836),” BYU Studies 33, no. 3 (1993): 555. Cited in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, "Translation and Historicity of the Book of Abraham," <https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/manual/gospel-topics-essays/translation-and-historicity-of-the-book-of-abraham?lang=eng> (21 May 2020).
- Robert K. Ritner, "A Response," (21 May 2020).
- John Gee, An Introduction to the Book of Abraham (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 2018), 143–46; Brent M. Rogers and others, eds., Documents, Volume 5: October 1835–January 1838, Joseph Smith Papers (Salt Lake City: Church Historian's Press, 2017), 74–75; Robin Scott Jensen and Brian M. Hauglid, eds., Revelations and Translations, Volume 4: Book of Abraham and Related Manuscripts, Joseph Smith Papers (Salt Lake City: Church Historian's Press, 2018), 195–96, 239 nn. 57, 64. See also the editors of the Joseph Smith Papers website and their comments here and here.