The Book of Abraham has a fascinating history. For example, Joseph Smith charged visitors to see four mummies he purchased with the scrolls of Abraham. The topic also raises a number of questions, such as whether the Egyptian manuscripts catalyzed Joseph’s Smith’s revelatory process.
1. Joseph Smith showed off the mummies that accompanied the Egyptian papyri
Joseph Smith purchased the Abrahamic manuscripts as part of a collection that included four ancient Egyptian mummies. The total cost was more than $2,000. To help recoup expenses, Joseph Smith put the mummies in the Nauvoo Mansion House and charged visitors to walk through the makeshift museum.
Historian Sara Georgini recounts a story of Charles Francis Adams seeing the mummies during a private tour of Nauvoo:
Over breakfast, as Adams recalled, Smith lectured on Mormon doctrine. Then, he led them down to the private chamber to visit his mother, Lucy Mack Smith. There, the Mormon leader unwrapped four Egyptian mummies and several rolls of yellow papyri. Next, “Joe” explained in detail the related holy manuscripts that he had transcribed. “Of course, we were too polite to prove the negative,” Charles wrote in his diary, “against a man fortified by revelation.”
Despite Smith’s best efforts at instruction, Charles never grasped the intricacies of Mormon belief, and he resented paying a quarter to see the cache.—Sara Georgini, author of “Household Gods: The Religious Lives of the Adams Family”
2. We don’t know if Joseph Smith used seer stones to translate the Book of Abraham
Seer stones played an integral role in Joseph Smith’s translation activities, but we’re not sure whether the Prophet used the stones (also called Urim and Thummim) to translate the Book of Abraham.
Wilford Woodruff’s journal mentions Joseph Smith being blessed “to translate through the Urim & Thummim Ancient records & Hyeroglyphics as old as Abraham.” However, his diary entry doesn’t mention specifics, and there is contemporary evidence suggesting the seer stones didn’t play a role.
“There are some late sources that mention that the Kirtland-era translations were done with a seer stone, but the evidence is not clear,” said Robin Jensen, co-editor of a special volume released by the Joseph Smith Papers. “In fact, there are sources stating that Joseph Smith specifically did not use a seer stone for parts of his Bible revision project in the 1830s, so it’s possible he felt little need to use the instruments for some or all of the work in Kirtland or Nauvoo.”
3. Fragment One likely isn’t the source of the Book of Abraham
Most of the Book of Abraham was destroyed in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. There are 11 remaining fragments, the first of which has often been thought to be the literal source material.
“Much ink has been spilled over this assumption,” said Egyptologist Kerry Muhlestein. “Yet when we recognize it as an assumption, and turn it into a hypothesis . . . it [becomes] clear that Fragment I was not the source of the Book of Abraham. It was not what Joseph Smith was translating from.”
4. Hebrew elements appeared in the Book of Abraham after Joseph Smith began studying the language
Evidence suggests that Joseph Smith translated the Book of Abraham over a seven year period, beginning in 1835. Not long after he began work on the project, the Prophet also began to study Hebrew with Joshua Seixas—and it may have affected the content of the resulting scripture.
No Hebrew elements have been found in Joseph’s early work. However, scholars believe they can pinpoint several examples that show up in his later efforts (after he received tutoring in Hebrew).
The unique finding has created a fierce divide in Latter-day Saint approaches to the Book of Abraham. It has also contributed to the “catalyst theory” of revelation.
Matthew Grey, a Professor of Ancient Scripture at Brigham Young University, explains how the historical record suggests that Joseph Smith’s translation efforts were often sparked (or “catalyzed”) by physical objects:
There does seem to be a recurring pattern in Joseph Smith’s translation projects, in which he was inspired by ancient objects (including gold plates, the King James Version of the Bible, and Egyptian papyri), and proceeded in his translations by blending his revelatory gifts with his best academic efforts (such as reaching out to local scholars for insights, consulting contemporary biblical commentaries, and learning Hebrew from a Jewish instructor.—Matthew Grey, Contributor to “Producing Ancient Scripture: Joseph Smith’s Translation Projects in the Development of Mormon Christianit
5. The Book of Abraham contains unique doctrines
The book makes several distinct theological contributions and is accepted by Latter-day Saints as scripture. “Our little Book of Abraham packs a big punch,” said Sam Brown, author of The Words and Worlds of Mormonism. “It’s showing how harmony exists in the cosmos, both in the realm of planets (and angels) and in the realm of humans.”
While many scholarly questions remain unanswered, the book’s role in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints remains important. “The veracity and value of the book of Abraham cannot be settled by scholarly debate concerning the book’s translation. The book’s status as scripture lies in the eternal truths it teaches and the powerful spirit it conveys,” states a Church History Topics essay. “The truth of the book of Abraham is ultimately found through careful study of its teachings coupled with sincere prayer and the confirmation of the Spirit.”
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