Chapter 13: More on How the Book of Abraham Came to Be
In an 1829 revelation, Oliver Cowdery and Joseph received knowledge that more records would come forth: “Behold, other records have I, that I will give unto you [Oliver Cowdery] power that you may assist to translate” (D&C 9:2). When the Egyptian papyri came into Joseph’s possession, he acknowledged: “Some ancient Records . . . have fallen into our hands from the catacombs of Egypt” (headnote to the book of Abraham). Joseph knew the record had “fallen into [his] hands” without his planning, and no doubt, he realized they were a partial fulfillment that “other records would come forth.”
The headnote also quotes Joseph as saying, “The writings of Abraham while he was in Egypt, called the Book of Abraham, written by his own hand, upon papyrus.” Abraham, himself, kept the record. He knew the importance of recordkeeping, as did prophets before and after him: “I shall endeavor to write some of these things upon this record, for the benefit of my posterity that shall come after me” (Abraham 1:31). For about four thousand years, these records lay dormant under the Lord’s preserving eye. Where were they, and who safeguarded them?
Professor John Gee’s research helps with some detail. The men who were caretakers of the papyri were Egyptian priests who lived in Thebes in Egypt. . . . The ancient owners of the papyri were among the most literate and educated people of the country. They were wealthy individuals who came from important political families. For example, the father of Hor (the owner of [Joseph Smith papyrus 1]) was the great governor of Thebes. . . . They had access to the great Theban temple libraries, containing narratives, reference works, and manuals, as well as scrolls on religion, ritual, and history. The papyri owners also lived at a time when stories about Abraham are known to have circulated in Egypt. If any ancient Egyptians were in a position to know about Abraham, it was the class of people to whom the owners of the Joseph Smith Papyri belonged. (publications.mi.byu.edu/fullscreen/?pub=1125&index=4)
Tracing the trail from Abraham to a published English version requires some conjecture (lds.org/topics/translation-and-historicity-of-the-book-of-abraham), yet at the appointed time, three essential players took their places on history’s stage—an antiquities collector, a motivated salesman, and a prophet.
Antonio Lebolo, a successful antiquities collector, went to Egypt and discovered ancient coffins containing mummies and papyrus scrolls and fragments. He procured them for museums. It was said of him that “Mr. Lebolo works successfully in his new career; he found beautiful pieces for the Drovetti Museum; and since Lebolo was allowed to do some excavations of his own, he gathered for himself a collection, which will bring him a moderate fortune” (bhporter.com/lebolo.htm). As it happened, Lebolo became seriously ill; willed the artifacts to a nephew, Michael Chandler; and passed away. After taking delivery of the stone coffins in New York City, Chandler went on tour, displaying them and selling portions throughout the eastern United States. He often asked if anyone could read hieroglyphs, and it is assumed he found experts who did translate a few characters for him. At some point, he heard of Joseph Smith and traveled to Kirtland, Ohio, where Joseph interpreted some of the characters. Chandler gave Joseph the following certificate:
Kirtland, July 6, 1835: This is to make known to all who may be desirous, concerning the knowledge of Mr. Joseph Smith, Jun., in deciphering the ancient Egyptian hieroglyphic characters in my possession, which I have, in many eminent cities, showed to the most learned; and, from the information that I could ever learn, or meet with, I find that of Mr. Joseph Smith, Jun., to correspond in the most minute matter. Signed, Michael H. Chandler Traveling with and proprietor of Egyptian Mummies. (edited by Robert L. Millet and Kent P. Jackson Studies in Scripture, Randall Book Company, , vol. 2, 162)
Understanding their value (and I believe under the influence of the Spirit), Simeon Andrews, Joseph Coe, and some other Church members purchased the coffins for $2,400, which in today’s money would be about $61,456.00. (www.in2013dollars.com/1835-dollars-in-2013?amount=2400).
An interesting appendage to the story of how Joseph acquired the antiquities shows a little-known side of his personality. When he learned of the purchase, Joseph’s response showed initial suspicion and an unwillingness to accept whatever came his way without scrutiny. “Certain gentlemen of Kirtland . . . purchase[d] these antiquities [and] pretend they have the bodies of Abraham, Abimelech, and Joseph who was sold into Egypt, etc., etc., for the purpose of attracting the attention of the multitude, and gulling the unwary; which is utterly false. . . . Who these ancient inhabitants of Egypt were, I do not at present say.” He then reasoned through what he knew about the burials of Abraham, Abimelech, and Joseph and concluded: “Consequently, these could not have been found in Egypt, in the nineteenth century.” Joseph explained about the catacomb where hundreds of mummies were found and spoke a cautious statement, “If I understand correctly” (History of the Church 2:348–351).
Although he questioned the identity of the mummies and the details of their discovery, Joseph’s interest in “the record of Abraham . . . found with the mummies” was undeniable. He explained that when the coffins were opened, there “was something rolled up . . . that proved to be two rolls of papyrus and two or three other small pieces of papyrus with astronomical calculations.” He described what he initially saw—hieroglyphics “written beautifully on papyrus, with black, and a small part red, ink or paint, in perfect preservation.” In summary, Joseph wrote: “Thus I have given a brief history of the manner in which the writings of the fathers, Abraham and Joseph, have been preserved, and how I came in possession of the same—a correct translation of which I shall give in its proper place” (Ibid).
According to dates in the History of the Church, Joseph began translating within three days. He said: “I commenced the translation of some of the characters or hieroglyphics, and much to our joy found that one of the rolls contained the writings of Abraham. . . . Truly we can say, the Lord is beginning to reveal the abundance of peace and truth” (2:236). Joseph’s statement, “one of the rolls contained the writings of Abraham,” should resolve much of the doubt over how the book of Abraham came to be. Anti–book of Abraham voices dwell on the fact that none of the Lebolo papyri fragments contain the writings of Abraham, which is true; however only fragments, not scrolls, have been rediscovered.
Eyewitnesses describe rolls (scrolls) not just fragments. Joseph said, “One of the rolls,” not one of the fragments. Oliver Cowdery remembered that there were "two rolls . . .[with] two or three other small pieces” (fragments). (http://eom.byu.edu/index.php/Papyri,_Joseph_Smith). A visitor in February 1843 saw “a long roll of manuscript, [being told] it was the ‘writing of Abraham’” and was shown “another roll” (Jay M. Todd, p. 245). Fairmormon.org wrote: “Joseph Smith had in his possession three or four long scrolls. . . . Of these original materials, only a handful of fragments were recovered at the Metropolitan Museum. The majority of the papyri remains lost, and has likely been destroyed” (en.fairmormon.org/Book_of_Abraham/Joseph_Smith_Papyri).
In 1966, Dr. Aziz S. Atiya, a University of Utah professor and expert in the Coptic language, found ten fragments of the Joseph Smith papyri while in the Metropolitan Museum, which are now in the Church collection. . Scholars affirm they are part of the Lebolo collection because the recovered papyri are pasted onto paper with “drawings of a temple and maps of the Kirtland, Ohio area on the back.” There was also an affidavit signed by Emma Smith (The Deseret News, November 27, 1967).
Professor John Gee, who wrote the introduction to the second edition of Hugh Nibley’s The Message of the Joseph Smith Papyri An Egyptian Endowment, confirms that recovered fragments are not the source of the book of Abraham. The text does not match. This is not a problem to faithful members of the Church. We anticipate that perhaps in time the scroll or scrolls of Abraham’s history may be found. Meanwhile, members treasure the contents of the book of Abraham and find joy in studying the expansive doctrines of premortal life, intelligences, and God’s purpose, to name a few pearls found therein.
Other writings have been discovered that show remarkable similarities to the writings of Abraham as found in the Pearl of Great Price. Dr. Hugh Nibley has documented abundant similarities between the book of Abraham and the apocryphal writings about Abraham, wherein the words and storyline have many parallels. Dr. Nibley asks:
How can all this be mere coincidence? Again and again the setting, the characters, and the plot in this strange series of dramas are the same. We ask the candid reader, if you were given a free hand to write your own Book of Abraham, without merely paraphrasing the Bible, how would you, living in backwoods America in the mid-1830s, have made out? . . . . The evidence that has led the experts in the past ten years to recognize the closest ties between the old Abraham Apocrypha and the Egyptian Book of the Dead, especially with references to the pictures in the latter, effectively eliminates the one argument against serious reading of the Book of Abraham. (Abraham in Egypt [Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book, 1981], 40)
Thanks to scholars such as Hugh Nibley and John Gee, others continue to research, and more evidences will come. Contrary voices will also continue. No matter how much evidence comes to light, antagonists with still challenge apologists. The intellectual debate will continue, but faithful members of the Church give little more than passing notice. This is because their testimony of the Prophet is secure and because the truths found in the book of Abraham outweigh any other concerns.
Realistically, evidence is sparse because Abraham was in Egypt a long time ago, he did not stay there long, and he was not Egyptian. According to fairmormon.org, “The time period when Abraham lived is almost unknown to Egyptology even today” (www.fairmormon.org/perspectives/fair-conferences/2009-fair-conference/2009-the-larger-issue). However, as more discoveries trickle in, similarities between the ancient world and the book of Abraham will substantiate Joseph’s translation. For example, “The plain of Olishem” (Abraham 1:10) is not found in the Bible, but there is a town in northwestern Syria named “Ulisum.” The Near Eastern poetic style called chiasmus in found in Abraham 3:22–23. The name of the god Elkenah is not found in the Bible but has been identified “among the gods worshipped by ancient Mesopotamians.” Archeological evidence shows that the Egyptians practiced human sacrifice as the book of Abraham documents. The most noteworthy evidence is that “regardless of how the Book of Abraham was translated, it is a remarkable document that tells us more about Abraham’s day than Joseph Smith could have known” (fairmormon.org/perspectives/fair-conferences/2009-fair-conference/2009-the-larger-issue). Professor Daniel C. Peterson also wrote about evidences for the book of Abraham in the Ensign, “News From Antiquity,” 1984.
Although many details about the papyrus are not known, the fact that members of the Church purchased them is certain. The fact that there was no effort to conceal them is certain. The fact that Joseph showed them to many people from the time he took possession of them until the time of his death is verifiable. An October 1835 entry in Joseph’s journal reads: “This afternoon I waited on the twelve most of them at my house and exhibited to them the ancient records in my possession and gave explanation of the same” (History of the Church 2:287). Another entry in January 1836 reads: “Attended school, as usual, and waited upon several visitors and showed them the record of Abraham. Mr. Seixas, our Hebrew teacher, examined them with deep interest, and pronounced it to be original beyond all doubt.” In February 1836, Joseph recorded: “Received many visitors, and showed them the Records of Abraham.” A week later he recorded: “Spent the afternoon in reading and in exhibiting the Egyptian records to those who called to see me” (Ibid).
Joseph’s scribes for the book of Abraham were Oliver Cowdery, Warren Parrish, and W. W. Phelps. These men add an additional layer of testimony similar to the testimony of the three witnesses to the Book of Mormon. Because of the scribes’ close involvement in the translation, if there were collusion or conspiracy, they were not only in the best position to expose Joseph but also had cause. All were excommunicated later in their lives. In their states of apostasy, none of them tried to discredit or undermine the validity of Joseph’s translations.
After Joseph’s death, his mother, Lucy Mack Smith, kept the papyri in her possession. After her death, they were in the possession of Emma Hale Smith, Joseph’s widow. In 1856, Emma sold them. Then abruptly, the trail of the papyri goes cold. One hundred years pass. Then ten fragments are found in the Metropolitan Museum in New York City and one shows up in the Church archives.
Some day in some pretty normal but miraculous way, the scrolls will be found, and another seer will be prepared to translate and finish Joseph’s work. And that is something to look forward to because the finished length of the book of Abraham will be “more lengthy than the Bible.” (Studies in Scripture, vol. 2, 174).
(c) Marilynne Todd Linford, 2017
(c) Marilynne Todd Linford, 2017