Monday, March 13, 2017

The Book of Abraham

Facsimile 2, printed in the Book of Abraham

Growing up I was always fascinated with the Book of Abraham.  It had such mysterious teachings, and it's the only source we have for the star Kolob.  I would sit in church mesmerized by the facsimile, and daydream about ancient Egypt.  I was taught Joseph Smith acquired these ancient scrolls and translated them by the power of God.  That's all I ever knew of the matter.  After recently learning about the Word of Wisdom debacle, I was now revisiting other foundational Mormon teachings.  The Book of Abraham was next to rock my theological world.

In 1835, William Chandler brought four mummies to Kirkland Ohio, where he met with Joseph Smith and the Mormons.  After seeing the mummies and the pair of scrolls that were with them, Joseph used the Church money and acquired the lot for $2400.  Upon receiving the scrolls, Joseph claimed that they were the scroll of Joseph of Egypt, and the scroll of Abraham.  Joseph claims that the scroll of Abraham was “written by his own [Abraham] hand upon papyrus.” 

Facsimile 3, printed in the Book of Abraham
Joseph Smith took to translating the scrolls by gifts and power of God, which became known as the Book of Abraham.  This book was canonized into Mormon scripture within The Pearl of Great Price.  

This was a bold and undisputed claim, as there really wasn't anybody that could translate ancient Egyptian since the Rosetta Stone had only recently been deciphered.  However, by 1856, a copy of The Book of Abraham found it's way to the Louvre in France.

"It was sometime during the year 1856, about five years after the Pearl of Great Price had been printed in England, when one of the small pamphlets found its way to the Louvre in Paris. There the facsimiles from the Book of Abraham, together with Joseph's accompanying explanations, were brought to the attention of M. Theodule Deveria. As one of the pioneers in the field of Egyptology, Deveria was asked to offer any comments on them he cared to make.
To Deveria the project probably did not seem worth the minimal effort it would require. However, he proceeded, and immediately recognized all three drawings as copies of rather common Egyptian funerary documents, of which he had examined hundreds. To be sure, most of the hieroglyphic and hieratic figures had been too poorly transcribed to be of much use for translation, and some elements in several of the drawings appeared to Deveria to be guesswork, probably incorrect restorations of missing sections of the original papyri. Still, most of the major elements fit very well into the established pattern associated with Egyptian mythology and the preparation of common funerary documents. Enough of the writing was legible for Deveria to decipher the names and titles of various Egyptian gods and goddesses, and on one of the drawings (Facsimile No. 3) he was able to determine the name of the deceased Egyptian for whom the scroll had originally been prepared. Concerning Facsimile No. 3 he wrote:
The deceased led by Ma into the presence of Osiris. His name is Horus, as may be seen in the prayer which is at the bottom of the picture, and which is addressed to the divinities of the four cardinal points.
Deveria dismissed Joseph's explanations as rambling nonsense. His comments first appeared in French in a two-volume work by Jules Remy entitled Voyage au Pays des Mormons (Paris, 1860)." (By His Own Hand Upon Papyrus, p. 25)
I never knew this.  Most Mormons don't.  Likely, they would argue and say that is just anti Mormon literature.  I know I would have.  But even though most Mormon know nothing about this, it is not even disputed among Mormon scholars.  And that is just the comparison of the facsimiles.  The actual scrolls Joseph used to translate the Book of Abraham was supposedly burned in the great Chicago fire of 1871.
Fragment found 
Never fear though, because in 1966, a piece of papyrus including facsimile 1 was found in the Metropolitan Museum of New York.  It was studied, by Mormon and non Mormon alike.  Both sides of the isle came to the same conclusion.  This papyri has nothing to do with Abraham.  Instead it was an excerpt from the Book of Breathings, a common funerary scroll that accompanied the mummified remains of the deceased.  Also, it dated to about the first century AD, a full 2000 years after Abraham.  So, this could not be "by his own hand upon papyrus".
Not only were Joseph Smith's interpretation of the Egyptian characters and facsimile wrong, but his rendition of facsimile 1 was incorrect.  The original fragment as shown above was not complete, and Jospeh drew the missing portion to give us Facsimile 1 in the Book of Abraham:
When Egytologists reviewed Josephs's facsimile, they found discrepancies, and below is what the original would have looked like:

Everything I read about the Book of Abraham cried fowl!  Nothing of what I was taught growing up was correct.  What we know for sure was Joseph claimed to have translated the papyrus by the power of God.  So either Joseph was full of shit, or he did not really have the "power" to translate.  When I tried to reconcile this damning piece of evidence, I found the following to be pretty much the best response possible given the circumstances:

"An example of what I am talking about is the recent discovery of the papyrus scrolls from which Joseph Smith was presumed to have translated the book of Abraham in the Pearl of Great Price. Modern scholars, looking at the scrolls, found nothing they considered to be similar to that book. I remarked at the time that such a finding didn't bother me in the least. God doesn't need a crib sheet in the form of a papyrus scroll to reveal Abraham's thoughts and words to Joseph Smith, with any degree of precision He considers necessary for His purposes. If the only function of the scrolls was to awaken the Prophet to the idea of receiving such inspiration, they would have fulfilled their purpose."
(Henry Eyring, Reflections of a Scientist, p. 46)

The official response from the Church is now Joseph simply used this papyrus as a catalyst to have the words of Abraham "revealed" to him, and he simply was confused thinking he was translating.  

Give me a break!  It's very convenient to shift the narrative in light of evidence contrary to your rendition of history.  Had any portion of the papyrus vindicated Joseph's translation, the Mormon church would have lauded Joseph's true prophetic nature.  It didn't though, and instead the Mormon church had to make excuses for it's clearly falsified claim of prophesy with regard to the revealed words of Abraham.

The sad part is, the Mormon churched derived two the most controversial doctrines from the Book of Abraham.  Both polygamy and the Mormon's stance against black people were both introduced thanks to Joseph's translation of the papyrus.  Interestingly enough, both "eternal" principles were eventually denounced by the Mormon church later on.

This was a big issue for me, because now it caused me serious contemplation of the other works of scripture Joseph produced.  At this point I didn't know what to do, but I felt I could still be a faithful Mormon, and not believe in the authenticity of the Book of Abraham.  That would come later as I looked more closely at the Book of Mormon itself.

No comments:

Post a Comment