The Book of Abraham is a text published by Joseph Smith, Jr. and thought by many within Mormonism to be the translated writings of the patriarch Abraham. Some Latter Day Saint denominations, including The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, accept the book as part of their canon. Other denominations, such as the Community of Christ, and many Mormon scholars and individuals, consider it to be a work of inspired (or even non-inspired) fiction.
The work is based on a set of Egyptian papyri that Joseph Smith obtained in July 1835, which he claimed were "written by Abraham's own hand." (See the book's title page.) In July 1835, an Irishman named Michael Chandler brought a travelling exhibition of four Egyptian mummies and papyri to Kirtland, Ohio, then the home of the Mormons. The papyri contained Egyptian hieroglyphics. As Prophet and Seer of the incipient Church of Latter Day Saints, Joseph Smith was given permission to look at the scrolls in the exhibit and revealed that "one of the rolls contained the writings of Abraham, another the writings of Joseph of Egypt" (History of the Church, Vol. 2, Ch. 17, p. 236. July 1835).
During the remainder of July, Smith reportedly "was continually engaged in translating an alphabet to the Book of Abraham, and arranging a grammar of the Egyptian language as practiced by the ancients." History of the Church, Vol. 2, Ch. 17, p. 238. Then he proceeded to dictate a translation. The text gives an account of Abraham's life and is strikingly similar to the account given in the Book of Jasher (not to be confused with (Book of Jasher (Pseudo-Jasher)) as it relates to Abraham's relationship with his father. The text provided justification for important Mormon doctrines, including the exaltation of man, plurality of gods (which some compare to polytheism), priesthood, the "curse of Cain" upon blacks, and pre-mortal existence.
Smith originally published the facsimiles and the Book of Abraham as a serial in the Mormon newspaper Times and Seasons of Nauvoo, Illinois with the heading "A translation of some ancient records, that have fallen into our hands from the catacombs of Egypt." Three etched facsimiles of hieroglyphics found with the mummy were also published in conjunction with the Book of Abraham, and often receive more attention than the book itself. For each of these facsimiles, Smith offered a detailed caption, as a translation of various elements on the papyrus and fragments. He characterized his "explanation" of Facsimile 2 as an incomplete translation.
The book along with the facsimiles was published by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as part of its Pearl of Great Price in Liverpool, England, in 1852; the denomination eventually canonized that book.
The papyrus scrolls
The papyri are thought to have been destroyed in a fire in Chicago in 1871. However, eleven papyrus fragments of the scroll Smith was handling were rediscovered in 1967 in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City (The Deseret News, Salt Lake City, November 27, 1967). Dr. Aziz S. Atiya, a professor of Arabic Studies from the University of Utah, made the identification, which was quite secure, since the back of the papyri were pasted down to paper with "drawings of a temple and maps of the Kirtland, Ohio area." There was an affidavit from one of Joseph Smith's wives, Emma Smith, that these papyri had been in the possession of Joseph Smith. With the rediscovery of the papyri, not only were fragments of the original Egyptian text recovered, from which Joseph Smith was translating to create the Book of Abraham, the original illustrations from which he reproduced his three "facsimiles" with his interpretations, were now available to professional Egyptologists.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art de-accessioned the papyri, which were fragmentary, late (Ptolemaic period) and of very familiar Egyptian texts, thus of little value to a museum, and presented them to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
The Joseph Smith Papyri Project at Brigham Young University is currently producing an authoritative three-volume edition based on the Smith papyri, recognized as a copy of the Egyptian Book of Breathings, an incantation to speed the journey of the deceased, and dated to the second or third century BC, which occupies volume 1. A second volume will set in context the contents from the Book of the Dead, also represented among the Smith papyri fragments. A third volume, written with Mormon Egyptologist John Gee, will look at the Smith papyri from a LDS perspective .
Analysis and criticism
Academic Egyptologists have generally concluded that the remaining papyrus fragments were portions of a 1st Century A.D. Book of Breathings (or a manual for handling the "Book of Breathings" on a mummy) prepared for a deceased priest of the Egyptian god Amon, accompanied by a portion of the Book of the Dead, which gives instructions how the deceased should behave towards various gods to progress through the afterlife. One section of the papyrus deals with farm life near the Nile. Though not all of the papyrus available to Smith was recovered, the Book of Breathings exists in many more complete papyri. No standard translation of the recovered papyrus refers to Abraham,
Nevertheless, several Mormon apologists have suggested a number of theories explaining how the translated work might still be the original writings of Abraham. The most popular theories include the following:
- The papyrus fragments were not the same as fragments used by Smith in his translation
- There are large sections of the papyri that are missing that could contain the text Joseph Smith based the Book of Abraham on
- Abraham's writings are esoterically encoded within the Egyptian funery scrolls
- The scrolls were merely a starting point for Smith to reconstruct the original writings of Abraham, which Smith did not have access to or had been destroyed
- Smith received the account by revelation, rather than a standard "translation" of text from one language to another, in a process similar to his translation of the Bible).
There is some dispute about the claim that Abraham lived in the land of the Chaldeans - many feel this is an error, although it appears in both the Book of Genesis, the Book of Jasher (not to be confused with Book of Jasher (Pseudo-Jasher) and other traditions and manuscripts.
The account in Genesis mentions his home city as "Ur of the Chaldees". The phrase "of the Chaldees" is often thought to be either an anachronism, or an interpolated clarification of where Ur was located, which some historians believe Abraham himself would not have been added since many historians do not believe that the Chaldeans lived in Ur until many years after the time of Abraham.
The Book of Abraham contains information not found in other texts published by Joseph Smith, Jr. concerning the pre-existence of spirits and the nature of deity. The portion of the text at 1:21-27 has been widely interpreted as justficiation for the Church's former practice of denying the priesthood to those of African descent; however, the passage in question does not speak of Sub-Saharan Africans, but Canaanites and Egyptians. As time passes, the former interpretation is being more widely seen as Mormon "folk doctrine" rather than a legitimate reading.
Both Mormon and non-Mormons have expressed large amount of interest in the large circular facsimile often printed in the Pearl of Great Price with the Book of Abraham. This figure is known as the Hypocephalus, and is believed by Egyptologists to have been placed under the head of the deceased in case he forgot some of the personalized detail needed to know what to say and how to behave in relation to 'gods' and trials after death (a sort of cheat sheet). These personalized instructions often accompany the Book of the Dead, but are either over-generalized in its text or passed over completely in highly individualized Books of the Dead.
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