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Book of Abraham: What Have Scholars Learned?

This article walks you through some of the latest research findings about the Book of Abraham, including exclusive From the Desk interviews.

The Book of Abraham is a volume of holy scripture translated by Joseph Smith. The text is unique because we possess some of the Egyptian papyri the Prophet may have used during his translation. However, the text on extant fragments doesn’t align with what’s found in the book—and that’s led to many debates. Ultimately, the Church says that the book’s power lies in study, prayer, and personal revelation. This article walks you through some of the latest research findings, including exclusive From the Desk interviews.


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Table of Contents


Ancient world

Extrabiblical traditions

There are scores of ancient accounts about the life of Abraham that aren’t found in the Bible. In many cases, these stories from Judaism, Islam, and Christianity align with those found in the Book of Abraham:

We have accounts about Abraham’s father being an idolater. We have stories about an attempted sacrifice or killing of Abraham. We have accounts that connect Abraham with astronomy. All of these are elements found in the Book of Abraham but missing from the Bible.

Legends About the Patriarch Abraham

Abraham’s story traces back to ancient Egypt

The biblical story of Abraham was known in ancient Egypt about the same time as the Hebrew Bible was translated into Greek, namely the third century BC. These stories were woven together—or “syncretized” alongside extrabiblical traditions about the life of Abraham.

While we don’t know precisely why ancient Egypt utilized the biblical tradition of Abraham, it might be because the story had something to contribute:

Israelite religion could offer the Egyptians stories associated with sanctity and sacred space, amulets, angels, a personal relationship with deity, and a god who acted in history.

Kerry Muhlestein, as quoted in “The Ancient Egyptian View of Abraham.”

Egyptian priests may have known about Abraham

The Book of Abraham is both lauded and criticized for its extra-biblical accounts from the patriarch’s life. According to BYU Egyptologist Kerry Muhlestein, ancient priests in Thebes were interested in the lives of biblical figures:

They were intertwining Egyptian religious thought and ritual with that of other cultures. This was especially true of Greek and Jewish cultures, which is not surprising since there were a lot of Greeks and Jews in Egypt at the time.

The Ancient Owners of the Joseph Smith Papyri

Astronomy

Symbolism

There are symbolic meanings behind the astronomy presented in the Book of Abraham. As Sam Brown explains in an interview about The Words and Worlds of Early Mormonism:

Our little Book of Abraham packs a big punch. It’s showing how harmony exists in the cosmos, both in the realm of planets (and angels) and in the realm of humans.

Samuel Morris Brown

3 models

Scholars have identified three ways to interpret the “Abrahamic astronomy” found in the Pearl of Great Price:

  1. Scientific. This model claims that the Abraham’s astronomy conforms with our current scientific understanding of the universe.
  2. Ancient cosmology. This model assumes that Abraham’s astronomical teachings were rooted in ancient cosmology.
  3. Kolob-centric. This model is closely associated with the second, but places Kolob (rather than earth) at the universe’s center.
Latter-day Saint scholars tell the story of the Book of Abraham’s history in this video produced for BYU Religious Education.

Devotional

A Christ-centered text

Andrew Skinner has called the Book of Abraham a “powerful, Christ-centered text.” In the January 2022 Liahona, he further explained that the Abraham covenant features prominently in the text—and that the Messiah is central to that covenant.


There are almost 1,000 general conference references

The Book of Abraham has been cited nearly 1,000 times in general conference addresses. Interestingly, Facsimile No. 2 is the only facsimile to have been quoted, and it shows up in only two talks:

  1. “Spiritual Communication” by Elder Spencer W. Kimball (April 1962).
  2. “Rest Signifies Change, Etc.” by Elder Erastus Snow (October 1879).

Doctrine and Teachings

Clarifying the Bible

The Book of Abraham includes several doctrinal teachings that clarify what is found in the Bible. A sample of the book’s theological contributions include revelation that:

  • Life doesn’t begin at birth.
  • People existed as spirits before coming to earth.
  • Jesus Christ was “like unto God” in the pre-mortal existence.
  • The earth wasn’t created ex nihilo (or out of nothing).
  • Mortal life is essential for God’s plan of happiness.

The human soul

Latter-day Saint scholar Patrick Mason believes that the “human soul” is the beginning and end of Latter-day Saint theology. While Joseph Smith taught this during the Nauvoo era, seeds of the idea also appear in the Book of Abraham:

Mormon theology proceeds from the premise that human beings (in our essence) are not created but rather are co-eternal with God, with existence and agency that predates our relationship with him.

And the entire purpose, or end, of the creation of the universe, in Mormon theology, is to provide a place where those eternal intelligences can become exalted.

So Mormonism begins and ends not with God but rather with the premise of human progress and perfectability.

Patrick Mason: An Interview with the Latter-day Saint Scholar

Abrahamic blessings

Terryl Givens has written a theological introduction to the book of 2 Nephi in the Book of Mormon. While he says that Nephi’s focus isn’t on covenantal blessings, it is an idea that appears in the writings of Abraham:

The meaning of the Abrahamic blessings continues to unfold with Joseph Smith’s subsequent revelations (including the Book of Abraham, with its reference to priesthood, ministry, and eternal life).

Terryl Givens and the Maxwell Institute on 2nd Nephi

A catalyst for temples

Joseph Smith’s translation of the Book of Abraham paved the way for temple ordinances, according to Latter-day Saint scholar, Richard Bennett:

His translation of Egyptian papyri into the Book of Abraham. These translations of new books of scripture introduced new doctrines and temple practices.

Richard E. Bennett, Temples Rising

D&C 76

Text attributed to Joseph Smith (but likely written by William W. Phelps) weaves language and concepts from the Book of Abraham into a poetic version of D&C 76.


Noble and great ones

There are several interpretations as to the identify of the “noble and great ones” in Abraham 3:22. For example, in an interview about the foreordination of Abraham, Stephen Smoot says that interpretations of the noble and greats ones have ranged from righteous leaders in God’s kingdom and exemplary leaders on earth to specific prophets and “choice spirits,” and divine members of God’s heavenly council.


Facsimiles

A possible connection to Freemasonry

“The Joseph Smith Egyptian papers are unfathomable to many who study them,” said Cheryl Bruno, author of Method Infinite: Freemasonry and the Mormon Restoration. She adds that it’s unclear exactly what Joseph was doing during the translation process, but that Freemasonry can shed light on his activities.

Bruno and her co-authors, Joe Steve Swick III, and Nicholas S. Literski, walk through parallels between Masonry rituals and Joseph’s Abrahamic manuscript, even asserting that “the Abraham facsimiles are analogous to tracing boards used in Masonic ritual.”

While not all scholars agree, Bruno believes that it expands our ability to understand the Kirtland Egyptian Papers:

It gives us an idea of what the project was all about that no other researcher has been able to explained.

Cheryl Bruno, How Did Freemasonry Influence Joseph Smith?

Temple connections

There are clear connections between Facsimile No. 2 and the Latter-day Saint temple endowment, according to Book of Abraham scholar Kerry Muhlestein:

From the notion of covenants and creation within the text of the Book of Abraham, to the temple-focused themes of the facsimiles, to the temple-connected aspects of the ancient papyri, there is a consistent temple theme in Joseph Smith’s work with the papyri.

What Egyptian Papyri Did Joseph Smith Possess?

General Reference Works

Book of Abraham bibliography

Book of Abraham scholarship is both immense and controversial. Accordingly, it can be difficult to know where to begin and who to trust. Thanks to four scholars associated with BYU Studies (Stephen Smoot, John Gee, Kerry Muhlestein, and John Thompson), you can now see the most recommended books and articles in a Book of Abraham bibliography.

It covers topics ranging from the Joseph Smith Papyri and the ancient world to the facsimiles and Hugh Nibley. A sampling of cited scholars includes:

  • Alexander L. Baugh
  • RoseAnn Benson
  • Christopher James Blythe
  • S. Kent Brown
  • Richard D. Draper
  • Scott C. Esplin
  • David Noel Freedman
  • John Gee
  • Gary P. Gillum
  • Terryl Givens
  • Matthew J. Grey
  • Brian M. Hauglid
  • Shon D. Hopkin
  • Kent P. Jackson
  • Ribin Jensen
  • Jeff Lindsay
  • Robert J. Matthews
  • Robert L. Millet
  • Kerry Muhlestein
  • Peter C. Nadig
  • Hugh Nibley
  • Monte S. Nyman
  • Blake T. Ostler
  • Daniel C. Peterson
  • Dana M. Pike
  • Stephen O. Smoot
  • Stephen D. Ricks
  • Michael D. Rhodes
  • Brent M. Rogers
  • Avram R. Shannon
  • Andrew Skinner
  • Julie M. Smith
  • Gaye Strathearn
  • John A. Tvedtnes
  • S. Michael Wilcox
  • David Winston

Joseph’s production of ancient scripture

It’s becoming more well known that Joseph Smith didn’t use “translation” in the same sense we use the word today. However, there are scores of answers to related lesser-known questions—and some questions without current answers.

That’s the focus of an entire book edited by Mark Ashurst-McGee and Michael Hubbard McKay, Producing Ancient Scripture: Joseph Smith’s Translation Projects in the Development of Mormon Christianity.


Joseph Smith Papers

The fourth volume in the Revelations and Translations series of the Joseph Smith Papers goes looks at the original texts in unprecedented detail. Entitled “Book of Abraham and Related Manuscripts,” it’s a gold mine for academics:

For the first time, scholars and researchers will have, between two covers, access to high-resolution, color images of all the Book of Abraham text produced during Joseph Smith’s lifetime as well as the papyri and documents relating to Smith’s and his clerks’ studying of the papyri.

Robin Jensen, New Joseph Smith Papers Book of Abraham Research

Hugh Nibley

Much of his work holds up

Few individual names are more closely associated with the Book of Abraham than Hugh Nibley. In many ways, the BYU polymath inaugurated what might be called “Book of Abraham Studies.”

While not all of his initial claims still hold water, many do:

For a subject that has seen as much change as the Book of Abraham has, it is somewhat surprising that Nibley’s work has held up as well as it has.

John Gee

Kirtland Egyptian Papers

Hugh Nibley coined this term in the 1970s. It has since fallen out of favor because:

some of these documents postdate the Kirtland period of Latter-day Saint history, and because the name coined by Nibley to describe this corpus is somewhat vague.

Stephen O. Smoot, John Gee, Kerry Muhlestein, and John S. Thompson, “The ‘Kirtland Egyptian Papers’ and the Book of Abraham.

Jesus Christ

Jehovah in premortality

The Book of Abraham includes an account of Jesus Christ creating the earth and meeting in council with others. Abraham refers to the Messiah as one “like unto God” in his vision.

An artificially-generated image depicting Jesus Christ and God the Father gathered in a premortal council with Abraham and other noble and great ones, as recounted in the Book of Abraham.

Joseph Smith Papyri

Only a small portion have survived

The Church has several surviving fragments from Joseph Smith’s papyri collection. But they may comprise only less than half of what the Prophet originally possessed. According to Kerry Muhlestein, the historical record indicates that Joseph “possessed a great deal more than what we currently have.”


An unsolved mystery

One of the biggest questions about the Book of Abraham is whether its text was on the papyrus used by Joseph Smith. There is some evidence that it was—and some that it wasn’t.

“In the end, we just don’t know exactly what the relationship is between the papyri and the text,” said Kerry Muhlestein, author of Let’s Talk About the Book of Abraham.


A settled question

A question with a more firm answer relates to whether Fragment One is the source of the Book of Abraham. The answer, accordingly to Egyptologist Kerry Muhlestein, is a resounding no:

Much ink has been spilled over this assumption. 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 is not what Joseph Smith was translating from.

Kerry Muhlestein

Odds and Ends

Kinderhook plates

The Kinderhook Plates were an attempt by a group of men who tried to trick Joseph Smith into translating a forgery—and the Egyptian Grammar and Alphabet came into play.

The alphabet was an Egyptian-to-English Lexicon developed by Joseph Smith and some of his cohorts. A witness observed the Prophet compare characters on the forged plates with the Egyptian Alphabet. Similarly, Joseph asked for his Hebrew lexicon, and made a brief attempt to translate the forged plates based on the ancient languages with which he was familiar, but never attempted to seek God’s aid as he had with works such as the Book of Mormon and Book of Abraham:

Whatever you make of the original production of the Egyptian Alphabet in 1835, here in 1843 with the Kinderhook plates, you see Joseph Smith using it as an ordinary translation tool.

Don Bradley, Did the Kinderhook Plates Really Fool Joseph Smith?

Charging people to see the mummies

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, Household Gods: The Religious Lives of the Adams Family

We don’t know if he used seer stones

Joseph’s use of seer stones to translate the Book of Mormon is legendary—but scholars aren’t sure if he also used them for the Book of Abraham. “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 the related Joseph Smith Papers volume.


Terms and definitions

  • Antonio Lebolo. The man who discovered the mummies and artifacts later possessed by Michael Chandler and sold to Joseph Smith.
  • Catalyst theory. As summarized in a Gospel Topics Essay: “According to this view . . . physical artifacts provided an occasion for meditation, reflection, and revelation. They catalyzed a process whereby God gave to Joseph Smith a revelation.”
  • Egyptian Alphabet and Grammar. A series of hieroglyphic characters and their English translations, as recorded by William W. Phelps. Its relationship to the Book of Abraham is unknown.
  • Great Chicago Fire of 1871. A fire which historians believe destroyed most of the papyrus fragments Joseph purchased from Michael Chandler.
  • Kirtland Egyptian Papers. A term coined by Hugh Nibley that refers to manuscripts associated with both the Book of Abraham and the Egyptian language. The phrase is rarely used since scholars have discovered many of these documents postdate Joseph’s time in Kirtland, Ohio.
  • Kolob. A celestial body found in Abraham’s book that is identified as the star “nearest unto the throne of God” (Abr. 3:2).
  • Long roll. A large papyrus witnesses recounted being used by Joseph Smith. It exists now only in fragments, making it difficult to conclude what text Joseph looked at during the translation.
  • Pearl of Great Price. A book of Latter-day Saint scripture into which the Book of Abraham was canonized in 1842.

Translation

We don’t know how he did it

Joseph Smith never provided a firsthand account of how he translated the Book of Abraham. Those who assisted him in the translation offered vague accounts, but there’s nothing from the Prophet himself.

Because of this, there has been no shortage of controversy over the years as scholars and polemicists alike have propped up theories to explain the production of the text.

Stephen O. Smoot, How Did Joseph Smith Translate the Book of Abraham?

Joseph’s study of Hebrew

Interestingly, Joseph’s translation doesn’t include Hebrew words before the Prophet began studying Hebrew in 1835–36—but it does afterward. BYU scholar Matt Grey suggests that the reason Joseph began studying Hebrew was so that he could better understand the Book of Abraham:

These observations provide fascinating and inspiring insights into the mechanics of Joseph Smith’s translation process, which, it seems, was a dynamic blending of his academic efforts and prophetic gifts.

Matt Grey, Joseph Smith’s Use of Hebrew in the Book of Abraham

Joseph’s growing linguistic abilities

Mark Ashurst-McGee agrees with Grey’s assessment of Joseph’s study of Hebrew during the translation of the Book of Abraham. He even thinks that Joseph’s study of ancient languages enabled God to speak to him in broader ways:

Smith’s broadened linguistic capacity—after having studied Hebrew—may have allowed God to reveal the Book of Abraham to him within a larger linguistic scope.

Mark Ashurst-McGee, How Did Joseph Smith Produce Ancient Scripture?

Catalyst theory

Richard Bushman concurs with the catalyst theory—both for the Book of Abraham, and some of Joseph’s other revelatory translations. The theory puts forth that physical objects could “catalyze” Joseph’s revelatory process:

Often Joseph Smith received a flash of revelation when he encountered certain items. The Abraham and Joseph scrolls are the most evident examples. Without having actually translated anything, Joseph knew in an instant that they were the writings of the two ancient patriarchs.

Richard Bushman, What Was the Purpose of Joseph Smith’s Gold Plates?

William W. Phelps

W. W. Phelps has been called Joseph Smith’s ghostwriter—and he appears to put some of his skills to work with the Book of Abraham. For example, there’s evidence to suggest that he wrote the book’s preface found in the standard works (but not found in the Book of Abraham scriptural text):

Translation of the Book of Abraham written by his own hand upon papyrus and found in the [catacombs] of Egypt.

Statement attributed by Bruce Van Orden to William W. Phelps, as found in an 1842 edition of Times and Seasons and the 2013 edition of the scriptures.

Phelps may have also exercised an active influence on the Abrahamic text, and his ideas made their way into a poem he wrote that later became the hymn: “If You Could Hie to Kolob.”


All or nothing

Scholars who analyze Joseph’s translation of the Book of Abraham and other scriptures often end up in one of two extreme camps, according to BYU’s Thomas Wayment:

Conversation partners often draw stark boundary lines of orthodoxy and heresy, between those who seem to claim that all of Joseph Smith’s scriptural projects were completed without the influence of external sources—and those who find Joseph’s scriptural projects as simply derivative from his cultural inheritance.

Thomas Wayment and the Joseph Smith Translation of the Bible

There were five primary scribes

Joseph Smith utilized five men as scribes for the Book of Abraham:

  1. Oliver Cowdery
  2. W. W. Phelps
  3. Frederick G. Williams
  4. Warren Parrish
  5. Willard Richards

A limit to scholarly debates

Scholars can—and do—go back and forth on Book of Abraham issues. However, in the end, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints argues that the book’s value can’t be settled by academic debates:

The book’s status as scripture lies in the eternal truths it teaches and the powerful spirit it conveys. 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.

Book of Abraham Translation, Church History Topics

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Further reading

Book of Abraham resources

By Kurt Manwaring

Writer. History nerd. Latter-day Saint.

2 replies on “Book of Abraham: What Have Scholars Learned?”

Under your 3 models you might want to include another scientific model, The Electric Universe. Our current space telescopes continue to show the deficiencies of the current scientific models, but this new information fits well within the Electric Universe model — which just happens to also fit very well with the cosmology that is presented in the Book of Abraham.

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