Joseph Smith began his translation of the Book of Abraham in 1835. However, he left no record of the process, making it impossible to know the precise mechanics. We do know that the translation likely included a mix of secular learning and divine revelation. And we know that he revised his initial translation, even incorporating Hebrew after studying the Biblical language. In this interview, Stephen O. Smoot discusses the complexity of the Prophet’s translation and marvels at the inspired final product.
Learn more about Joseph Smith’s translation of the Book of Abraham in a special issue of BYU Studies. Similarly, you can purchase related books from these Amazon Affiliate links to enhance your study. As an Amazon Affiliate, I earn from qualifying purchases.
|Book of Abraham translation books|
|An Egyptian Endowment (Find Book)|
|An Introduction (Find Book)|
|A Textual History (Find Book)|
|Joseph Smith Papers, Revelations and Translations, V. 4: Book of Abraham and Related Manuscripts (Find Book)|
|Let’s Talk About the Book of Abraham (Find Book)|
|Mormonism’s Most Controversial Scripture (Find Book)|
|Producing Ancient Scripture (Find Book)|
|The Hor Book of Breathings (Find Book)|
|Understanding the Book of Abraham (Find CD)|
What did Joseph Smith mean when he used the word “translate”?
From what we can tell, by “translate” Joseph Smith appears to have meant conveying the ancient record of Abraham written in the Egyptian language into modern English. So in that sense, he probably meant it the way the word is typically used today.
However, he also appears to have understood the method of rendering that translation to have been revelation, not secular academic training. So in another sense, the way he used the word “translate” is different than how it is usually used today.
Provide some historical examples where Joseph uses “translate.”
Well, we have several entries in Joseph Smith’s contemporary journal and in his manuscript history where he or his secretaries use the word “translate,” “translating,” or “translation” to refer to his activity with the Egyptian papyri he acquired in July 1835. (See, for example, the journal entries dated October 7, November 19, November 24, and November 25, 1835, and March 8, 1842; as well as the entry dated July 6, 1835 in Joseph’s manuscript history.)
Of course, when the first installment of the Book of Abraham was published on March 1, 1842, it was accompanied by a header calling it: “A TRANSLATION Of some ancient Records that have fallen into our hands…”
He also sometimes used the words “transcribe,” “exhibit,” and “explain” in connection with the production of the Book of Abraham, referring to, variously, his participation in the related efforts to decipher the Egyptian language, preparing the facsimiles for publication, or expounding on the contents of the papyri to interested visitors.
Did Joseph ever refer to the production of the Book of Abraham by another word?
Yes. We have one documented instance where he referred to the text as a “revelation,” or at least approved of that language.
In an article that appeared in the Times and Seasons on September 1, 1842, under the Prophet’s editorial supervision, there is a clear reference to the Book of Abraham as a revelation instead of a translation:
But if we believe in present revelation, as published in the Times and Seasons last spring, Abraham, the prophet of the Lord, was laid upon the iron bedstead for slaughter.
How does his production of other ancient scripture shed light on the Book of Abraham?
One thing we see pretty consistently across Joseph Smith’s scriptural translation projects, from the Book of Mormon to the Book of Abraham to the Joseph Smith Translation of the Bible, is that the method of translation was understood to be not so much secular or academic learning, of which Joseph had very little, but instead inspiration, with which he was abundantly blessed.
This isn’t to say that there was no mental rigor expended in the production of these texts (compare the famous passage from D&C 9:8–9 in connection with the translation of the Book of Mormon), but rather that the Prophet was not “translating” ancient languages the way, for example, I was taught in years of grad school. (It would’ve been really nice to have had a seer stone for my language exams!)
By situating the production of the Book of Abraham next to the production of the Book of Mormon and the Prophet’s other revelatory and translation outpourings, we can do a useful comparative analysis that helps us appreciate how these texts are similar but also how they show signs of unique differences.
Was his production of the Book of Mormon more translation or revelation?
I actually addressed this question at length in a recent Joseph Smith Papers symposium paper that I hope to publish in the near future, and we touch on it in this new issue of the journal as well. “Translation” and “revelation” were nearly synonymous in early Latter-day Saint usage, almost to the point of them being used interchangeably.
This is very clear when you see how early Saints spoke about the production of the Book of Mormon in contemporary accounts of its origins and nature.
And why not? After all, Joseph claimed the translation of the text came from revelation as he utilized the seer stones—a process he called “the gift and power of God.” So these two things were closely linked in early Latter-day Saint conceptualizations. You see this clearly in Orson Pratt’s influential writings, for example.
More recently, Elder Ulisses Soares reiterated this point in General Conference when he said:
The translation process of the Book of Mormon was also a miracle. This sacred ancient record was not ‘translated’ in the traditional way that scholars would translate ancient texts by learning an ancient language. We ought to look at the process more like a ‘revelation’ with the aid of physical instruments provided by the Lord, as opposed to a ‘translation’ by one with knowledge of languages.Elder Ulisses Soares
This isn’t some new way to think about the translation of the Book of Mormon. We can see it almost as soon as the book is published and missionaries are sharing it with others, and pretty quickly it takes root in Latter-day Saint discourse surrounding the text.
What about his new translation of the Bible?
What we today call the Joseph Smith Translation of the Bible was simply called a “new translation” of the Bible by the Prophet. There has been extensive study of the origins and nature of this text going back at least to the 1970s with the pioneering work of Robert J. Matthews.
I recommend Kent P. Jackson’s recent book as a good starting point to get a scholarly lay of the land with the JST.
What I can say now, succinctly, is that there does not appear to be any evidence that Joseph used his seer stone to read ancient manuscripts to produce this “new translation.” Instead, he revised and expanded the English text of the King James Bible.
Explicit statements in the JST manuscripts make it clear that Joseph and his secretaries understood that he was translating or revising the text by inspiration. “A Revelation given to Joseph the Revelator June 1830.” “The First Book of the New Testament translated by the Gift of god.” And so on. Orson Pratt likewise claimed he was an eyewitness to the production of the JST, and in his mind he linked its production with the translations of the Book of Mormon and the Book of Abraham, showing that some early Saints saw these projects as related manifestations of Joseph’s prophetic gifts.
Now the thing that makes all of this so interesting is the fact that Joseph consistently called his work on the Bible a “translation,” despite the fact that he was clearly not translating the Bible the way I and other scholars do (that is, scrutinizing Hebrew and Greek). The fact that he did so means we need to be sensitive to what “translation” meant to the Prophet and early Latter-day Saints and how it’s both similar and dissimilar to how we use the word today.
What other records can we examine to see whether Joseph viewed the process as translation or revelation?
Actually, we need to consider two sections of the Doctrine and Covenants: Section 7 and Section 93. Section 7 is the Prophet’s revealed translation of some heretofore lost or unknown writings of John the Beloved Disciple said to have been preserved on a physical manuscript (“parchment”).
Section 93, specifically verses 6–18, is another revelation of the writings of another figured called John, presumably also the Beloved Disciple but we don’t know for sure.
Both of these revelations purport to give a translation of these lost writings, but in neither case was Joseph actually handling an ancient record. Section 7 especially has a fascinating compositional history, as it underwent revision and expansion from its manuscript form to its canonical form, and early versions of this text go back and forth on calling it a “revelation” and a “translation.”
These two sections of the Doctrine and Covenants, in my opinion, are textbook examples of how these two categories (“revelation” and “translation”) were collapsed into each other in Joseph Smith’s prophetic lexicon.
Because of this, we should be sensitive to how we approach the Book of Abraham when we see the Prophet using both of these words to describe his work on this text.
Did Joseph Smith ever explain how he translated the Book of Abraham?
Sadly, no. We have no firsthand account from Joseph explaining how he produced the Book of Abraham. We have vague accounts from those who assisted him in the translation, and we have clues from the surviving manuscripts, but nothing directly from the Prophet. 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.
Is there any evidence that Joseph adapted or revised his initial translation?
Yes. We can clearly see that between the initial composition of the Book of Abraham in Kirtland to the publication of the text in Nauvoo, Joseph revised his translation. We shouldn’t overstate this point, because it’s not like the Prophet dramatically rewrote the text or anything.
But we can clearly see from the surviving manuscripts that some revisions were made. This includes changing the name of an important character in the opening chapter of the text and other smaller revisions (including the addition of the explanatory gloss at Abr. 1:14). The text was not static, in other words, or somehow fossilized immediately upon its initial rendering.
What are the implications of this? Well, for starters I believe it means that for Joseph the concept of “translation” could include things like revisions once the text had been already revealed.
He did this, of course, with the second and third editions of the Book of Mormon prepared in Kirtland and Nauvoo, respectively, as well as with his revelations that were compiled in the Doctrine and Covenants. Joseph thus appears to have assumed the role of editor and revisor of his revelations as part of his prophetic prerogative.
None of this, I hasten to add, necessarily means Joseph was just making stuff up. Nor does it necessarily mean the Book of Mormon and the Book of Abraham aren’t authentic translations of ancient documents. Rather, Latter-day Saints today just need to be aware that instead of being a passive seeric stenographer, Joseph appears to have taken an active role in shaping the final form and content of his inspired translations and revelations.
So, how did Joseph translate the Book of Abraham?
Ultimately, it was done by the gift and power of God. As with the translation of the Book of Mormon, we will probably never know all the particulars of how the Prophet translated the Book of Abraham. But what we do know is that the work was accomplished by revelation.
“Joseph the Seer saw these Record[s] and by the revelation of Jesus Christ could translate these records.”
That was John Whitmer’s contemporary report of how the text was produced, and other sources corroborate this. There is even, I believe, a good likelihood that the Prophet utilized the seer stone in the translation of the Book of Abraham, although this is, I acknowledge, a contested point. (I have laid out my case for the use of the seer stone in the translation of the Book of Abraham in an article that appeared last year in the journal Religious Educator [Vol. 23, No. 2, 2022].)
One point my coauthors and I emphasize in A Guide to the Book of Abraham is that we can best judge the Book of Abraham on its own merits, rather than on the (as of yet) unanswerable question about how it was translated.
Hugh Nibley was making this point decades ago. The inspired contents of the Book of Abraham are the best evidence for its authenticity, regardless of the method of how it was produced. So while I am always excited to explore how the Book of Abraham was translated, and I think it’s important to keep investigating this subject, I also think it’s more important not to lose focus on the truly extraordinary and inspired text the Prophet gave us.
Subscribe to our email list, and we’ll notify you when we publish new articles!
About the interview participant
Stephen O. Smoot is a doctrinal student at the Catholic University of America studying Semitic and Egyptian Languages and Literature. He is the author of several articles about the Book of Abraham, including “In the Land of the Chaldeans: Prophets, Pagans, and Papyri” and “Did Joseph Smith Use a Seer Stone in the Translation of the Book of Abraham?”. Smoot is also the co-editor of a special issue of BYU Studies, “A Guide to the Book of Abraham.”
- How Did Joseph Smith Translate the Book of Mormon?
- How Did Joseph Smith Produce Ancient Scripture?
- Is There Hebrew in the Book of Abraham?
- Did the Kinderhook Plates Really Fool Joseph Smith?
- What Have Scholars Learned About Joseph Smith?
- Book of Abraham Bibliography
Book of Abraham translation resources
- A Guide to the Book of Abraham (BYU Studies)
- Did Joseph Smith Use a Seer Stone in the Translation of the Book of Abraham? (Religious Educator)
- Translation and Historicity of the Book of Abraham (Gospel Topics Essays)
- The Book of Abraham, Joseph Smith, Revelation, and You (BYU Hawaii Devotional)
- Fantasy and Reality in the Translation of the Book of Abraham (Interpreter Foundation)