Question: Did Joseph Smith believe that Abraham wrote the text on the papyrus himself?

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Question: Did Joseph Smith believe that Abraham wrote the text on the papyrus himself?

Joseph Smith believed that the writing on the papyrus was done by Abraham himself

Is it troubling that Joseph Smith and his contemporaries may have assumed an autographical nature of the text? Not necessarily, there is a lot of the papyri that we don't currently have. This may easily resolve the issue. Another potential way to approach the issue is to consider notions of prophetic fallibility.

There is a lot of papyri that we don't have

It must be remembered that we don't have all the papyri that was in Joseph Smith's position. The associated text of the Book of Abraham and other things mentioned by early sources of the papyri may be contained by documents we don't currently have in our possesion. For more information on that, see this link.

There is no evidence that Joseph Smithʼs understanding of the dating of the papyrus came from any intense revelatory process or divine means

In order to establish that Joseph Smithʼs prophetic abilities are hampered or called into question by this possible assumption of his, one must first cite evidence that Joseph Smithʼs understanding of the nature of the papyrus (namely, whether or not it dated to the time of Abraham) came from revelatory or divine means. Only then can one question Joseph Smith. It would be folly to criticize Joseph the Prophet when merely Joseph the speculator or Joseph the assumer was speaking. If the Prophet Joseph Smith never claimed on a prophetic or revelatory basis to know if the papyri was a holograph of Abraham, then one cannot attack him for a position he never took.

The Prophet may have had a mistaken speculation

If the Prophet did base his belief on a holographic nature of the papyri on purely human speculation or thought, then it only necessitates that the Prophet had a mistaken speculation. As Michael Ash has demonstrated at length, Prophets, especially those of the LDS tradition, have never claimed infallibility. If one acknowledges the fact that Joseph Smith never himself claimed infallibility or omniscience then this is all much ado about nothing. Returning to Ash’s article:

"Now this issue is very similar to that of Book of Mormon geography. It is very likely that Joseph Smith believed in a hemispheric Book of Mormon geography--it made sense to his understanding of the world around him. Such a misinformed belief or most likely misinformed belief, according to modern scholarship, makes him no less a prophet. It simply provides us with an example of how Joseph, like any other human, tried to understand new information according to his current knowledge. So, likewise, with the Abrahamic papyri.[1]

The Catalyst Theory of Translation

There is a view of translation of the Book of Abraham that is compatible with the view that Abraham did not literally record the words of Abraham written on the papyri. This is known as the Catalyst Theory of translation where Joseph's mind was simply induced by the Book of Abraham into a revelatory process in which he could bring forth the words of scripture that he felt impressed to. This is similar a process for the Book of Moses where Joseph was simply working with the then contemporary version of the King James Version of the Bible. As expressed by the Gospel Topics Essay on the Book of Abraham:

Alternatively, Joseph’s study of the papyri may have led to a revelation about key events and teachings in the life of Abraham, much as he had earlier received a revelation about the life of Moses while studying the Bible. This view assumes a broader definition of the words translator and translation.[2] According to this view, 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.[3][4]

Joseph Smith's assumptions about the dating of the papyri may likely be independent of the actual authenticity of the Book of Abraham

Furthermore, Joseph Smith’s own assumptions or thoughts about whether or not the papyri was holographic in nature is independent of the actual authenticity of the Book of Abraham. Regardless of what Joseph Smith or others may have thought as per the nature of the text (if it be holographic or not) such has no implications for what the text itself actually claims or whether Joseph Smith was able to actually translate such by the gift and power of God.

Thus, the whole question can revolve more around one’s assumptions about Prophets than the actual Book of Abraham. For more on the nature of revelation see this link.


  1. Ash, "Book of Abraham 201."
  2. “Joseph Smith as Translator,” in Richard Lyman Bushman, Believing History: Latter-day Saint Essays, ed. Reid L. Neilson and Jed Woodworth (New York: Columbia University Press, 2004), 233–47; Nibley, Message of the Joseph Smith Papyri, 51–59. See also footnote 19.
  3. By analogy, the Bible seems to have been a frequent catalyst for Joseph Smith’s revelations about God’s dealings with His ancient covenant people. Joseph’s study of the book of Genesis, for example, prompted revelations about the lives and teachings of Adam, Eve, Moses, and Enoch, found today in the book of Moses. See Doctrine and Covenants 35, 37, 41, 42, 45, 73, 76, 77, 86, 93, 91, 94, 124. These comprise more than a dozen revelations prompted by the Joseph Smith Translation.
  4. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, "Translation and Historicity of the Book of Abraham" <> (accessed 4 September 2019)