Witnesses recorded seeing more Joseph Smith Papyri than we currently have—and a sizeable portion perished in the Great Chicago Fire. Nonetheless, we know a great deal about the surviving records—including their potential impact on the translation of the Book of Abraham and the origins of Latter-day Saint temple rites. In this interview, Kerry Muhlestein explains what we know and don’t know about the Prophet’s Egyptian Papyri.
What papyri did Joseph Smith possess?
We know of several ancient papyri possessed by the Prophet Joseph Smith:
- Two rolls (or scrolls) of papyri
- Several other fragments or pieces of papyri
- The hypocephalus of Sheshonq
- At least part of the Book of the Dead of Tasherit-Min
- The Book of Breathings of Hor
What was the Book of Breathings?
The Book of Breathings was an ancient Egyptian funerary text that was designed to help the deceased get to where they wanted to be in the afterlife in the kind of state they wanted to be in there. It fulfills basically the same function as the Book of the Dead, though it is much shorter, and was used for a much smaller period of time.
Typically these texts reflected ritual that was designed to help the deceased continue to live (breathe) and be rejuvenated with a whole and functioning body, and to become a light-filled, purified being.
What do we know about the copy possessed by Joseph Smith?
Joseph Smith possessed a copy of the Book of Breathings that was owned by Hor, a priest in Thebes. This is one of the earliest—probably the earliest—known copy of this particular text. It focuses on Hor being rejuvenated, on his body functioning properly, on his being in the presence of various gods, and on his being purified so that he could be in those presences.
This particular manuscript seems to be on the edge of innovation, and so does the vignette (drawing) that was on the same papyrus.
It has been suggested that there is an Egyptological connection between this drawing and temples. There is still a great deal we need to learn about this, and several of us are conducting research to try to better understand this manuscript and the accompanying drawing.
How much of the Book of the Dead did Joseph Smith have?
It is difficult to say how much of the Book of the Dead Joseph Smith had, for two reasons.
- We only have fragments of what he originally possessed. So, we don’t know how much more he had of that text.
- The Book of the Dead is not a static composition. Copies of the Book of the Dead varied, with some being longer than others, and with a variety of different possible “chapters” included. So, we don’t know how long Tasherit-Min’s copy of the Book of the Dead could have been, and we don’t know how much of that Joseph Smith had. What we do know is that he had enough for us to be sure that it was indeed a copy of the Book of the Dead.
Was it ever used in non-funerary settings?
There is substantial evidence that the Book of the Dead mirrored other kinds of ritual texts, and vice-versa. That means that the Book of the Dead itself was funerary in nature, but it interacted and intertwined with rituals for the living in a dynamic way.
So, the short answer is that the separate “spells” or “chapters” within the Book of the Dead were often texts that showed up in similar forms in non-funerary rituals.
Many of these rituals had temple connections.
What does its connection to the ancient Egyptian temple suggest about Latter-day Saint temple rites?
The temple connections between both Hor’s Book of Breathings and the Book of the Dead are very interesting for members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Soon after Joseph Smith first began working on translating the Book of Abraham, he administered the first temple rituals in the not-yet-finished Kirtland temple. Years later, when he began to work on the Book of Abraham again, within weeks he administered the first temple endowments in the Red Brick Store. Further, the explanations for Facsimile Two make clear references to the temple.
Thus, it is not surprising to lean that the papyri Joseph Smith possessed had ancient connections to temples.
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.
Is it possible that Joseph Smith possessed other papyri?
We know Joseph Smith possessed much more papyri than what we currently have. We know this from the historical accounts of those who saw the papyri. We have numerous accounts that speak of seeing what must be the fragments we currently have, but which also speak of seeing a large scroll and a smaller (but seemingly still sizable) scroll.
Beyond that, we know from Facsimile Two that the Prophet had at least one other papyrus document (the document that Facsimile Two is a facsimile of). Other handwritten copies of the papyri let us know that there were likely other fragments.
Thus, we can be sure that Joseph Smith possessed a great deal more than what we currently have. Only a minor portion of the full collection has survived, according to the historical evidence.
Do we know what role the papyri played in Joseph’s translation of the Book of Abraham?
We do not know exactly what role the papyri played in the translation of the Book of Abraham. Joseph Smith spoke of the text of the Book of Abraham being on the papyri, so we should take that possibility most seriously.
This would suggest that somewhere on the now-missing papyri was a text that Joseph Smith translated. We know that the majority of the papyri Joseph Smith once possessed no longer survives. Further, eyewitness accounts make it fairly clear that Joseph was translating from the long roll, which we know was destroyed in the great Chicago fire. If Joseph was translating from the papyri, the sources indicate that the text he was working with no longer survives.
At the same time, we know from his translation of the Bible, that Joseph Smith could look at one text and receive revelation for an ancient text that wasn’t present on the text he was looking at.
The Book of Moses is an example of this. Could it be possible that looking at the papyri opened Joseph Smith to revelation about a text that once existed but was not present on the papyri? Of course it is possible. We cannot prove or disprove this theory.
It is important to keep in mind that we are not sure what the source of the Book of Abraham was.
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We publish weekly.
- Let’s Talk About the Book of Abraham
- Abrahamic Legends in Islam, Christianity, and Judaism
- Joseph Smith and the Book of Abraham
- Book of Mormon Translation Q&A
- The Ultimate Book of Abraham Bibliography
Joseph Smith’s Egyptian Papyri resources
- A Guide to the Book of Abraham (BYU Studies)
- Translation and Historicity of the Book of Abraham (Gospel Topics Essays)
- An Introduction to the Book of Abraham (Deseret Book)
- Books of the Dead Belonging to Tshemmin and Neferirnub (Neal A. Maxwell Institute)
- The Hor Book of Breathings: A Translation and Commentary (FARMS)