Part 10: CES Letter Book of Abraham Questions [Section A]

by Sarah Allen


The Book of Abraham is perhaps our most controversial book of scripture, maybe even more so than the Book of Mormon though it is less well-known. It is a complicated, messy subject with a lot of different parts to it. This is something I’ve studied a fair bit over the years, and it’s actually one of my favorite things to study. I know enough about the subject to talk about the various theories and viewpoints, but I suspect a lot of people won’t agree with my stance on things and that’s okay. We all need to come to our own opinions about these sorts of things. I’ll try to keep from getting too esoteric in my comments, but please understand that some of the current controversies involve minor details that seem silly to quibble over, but which end up making a rather large difference once you get deeper into the study of this book.

Perhaps even more than the translation method, this subject bothers Jeremy Runnells the most. I believe he even says at one point that the Book of Abraham is what officially broke his testimony, which is unfortunate. He makes a lot of misstatements throughout this section, so I’m not sure if the issue is that he just doesn’t understand the Book of Abraham and its scholarship, or if he’s doing it deliberately. The critics of the Church have been particularly successful in framing the arguments on this topic in such a way that it really hurts a lot of people, so I’m willing to give Jeremy the benefit of the doubt regarding this section and believe that he just doesn’t know enough about the topic. If so, it’s especially sad that he let it destroy his testimony when some further study might have saved it. I may be wrong; maybe he knows exactly what he’s doing when he makes those misstatements and frames things incorrectly. He certainly does that knowingly in other sections of this Letter.

Either way, this is a difficult subject for a lot of people, so I’m going to try to break it all down in such a way that it makes sense, and that it helps you guys see that there are faithful explanations out there. We’ll go slowly and I may have to break some questions into multiple parts because he covers so much ground in a single question. I don’t want to skim over anything too lightly because it is such a controversial subject. If anything isn’t clear as we go along, please let me know in the comments and I’ll do my best to clarify. I love the Book of Abraham and I think its doctrine is beautiful, so I hope you guys come away with that feeling, too.

Jeremy starts off by quoting this paragraph from the Gospel Topics essay about the Book of Abraham:

None of the characters on the papyrus fragments mentioned Abraham’s name or any of the events recorded in the Book of Abraham. Mormon and non-Mormon Egyptologists agree that the characters on the fragments do not match the translation given in the Book of Abraham, though there is not unanimity, even among non-Mormon scholars, about the proper interpretation of the vignettes on these fragments. Scholars have identified the papyrus fragments as parts of standard funerary texts that were deposited with mummified bodies. These fragments date to between the third century B.C.E. and the first century C.E., long after Abraham lived.

He conveniently omits the following paragraph:

Of course, the fragments do not have to be as old as Abraham for the Book of Abraham and its illustrations to be authentic. Ancient records are often transmitted as copies or as copies of copies. The record of Abraham could have been edited or redacted by later writers much as the Book of Mormon prophet-historians Mormon and Moroni revised the writings of earlier peoples. Moreover, documents initially composed for one context can be repackaged for another context or purpose. Illustrations once connected with Abraham could have either drifted or been dislodged from their original context and reinterpreted hundreds of years later in terms of burial practices in a later period of Egyptian history. The opposite could also be true: illustrations with no clear connection to Abraham anciently could, by revelation, shed light on the life and teachings of this prophetic figure.

By cherry-picking statements out of all context, he’s setting up the essay to make claims it doesn’t make, and he does that all throughout this section. He states opinions as facts and twists documents into saying things they don’t actually say, and it creates a lot of additional confusion surrounding an already somewhat confusing topic.

Originally, Joseph claimed that this record was written by Abraham “by his own hand, upon papyrus” — a claim still prominent in the heading of the Book of Abraham. This claim could not be evaluated for decades as many thought the papyri were lost in a fire. The original papyrus Joseph translated has since been found and, as stated in the Church’s July 2014 Translation and Historicity of the Book of Abraham essay, “scholars have identified the papyrus fragments as parts of standard funerary texts…[that] date to between the third century BCE and the first century CE, long after Abraham lived.”

Okay. Right off the bat, there are some inaccuracies, half-truths, vague insinuations of the Church hiding things, etc. This paragraph is a mess. Yes, Joseph stated that this record was written by Abraham by his own hand, and yes, that statement still stands as part of the Book of Abraham. However, that is not the full story, and the statement that “the original papyrus Joseph translated has since been found” is not accurate. The suggestion that the bulk of the papyri was not lost in the fire is also incorrect, and the essay is also not the first time the Church has stated that the papyrus fragments don’t match the text of the Book of Abraham.

So, let’s take this one thing at a time. I suppose a quick overview of the history of the papyri is in order. That’ll clear up some misconceptions straight away. I’m going to paraphrase a brief history that John Gee outlined in his book, An Introduction to the Book of Abraham and a few other places.

In the summer of 1835, a man named Michael Chandler arrived in Kirtland with some mummies and papyrus scrolls in his possession, and offered to sell them to any takers. They were found in the early 1800s in Thebes. Chandler claimed to be the nephew of the man who dug them up, Antonio Lebolo. This was later discovered to be a fraud, as Chandler is unrelated to Lebolo and it seems he duped someone managing Lebolo’s estate into believing that he was. Lebolo was an agent acting on the behalf of another man, Bernadino Drovetti, during the dig, which supposedly unearthed several hundred mummies and is thought to be one of the largest discoveries of mummies and papyri in history. Those reports may be exaggerated, but it’s not clear by how much, if at all. Drovetti took most of the items into his possession, but Lebolo kept a few for himself, and they were sent to the United States and toured around and sold off to anybody willing to pay enough for them. Eventually, Chandler procured the remaining items and took them to Kirtland. A group of Saints bought four mummies and at least five papyri on behalf of the Church for about $2,400, and Joseph took possession of the items.

Joseph began translating the papyri in July of 1835, and then had another session that October. Then, Joseph got distracted by studying Hebrew, and that just started eating up all of his time, so the Egyptian stuff got put on hold. Then, of course, there were the persecutions in Kirtland and in Missouri, and Joseph didn’t get back to working with the papyri until late 1841, in Nauvoo. That’s when he started preparing the various manuscripts and translations for publication. He did some editing and polishing, and possibly more translating. Then, they started publishing it all in installments in the Times and Seasons in 1842. There were three installments, and they left off with a comment stating that future installments were forthcoming, but nothing else ever came out.

In the meantime, Joseph’s father died in 1840, leaving his mother, Lucy, without any income. She moved in with Joseph and Emma and they had their general store, but she didn’t have an income of her own. Joseph’s house was pretty busy and a lot of visitors would stop by and want to see things like the mummies and papyri, so Joseph gave all of it to his mother and let her charge visitors 25 cents to view them. At the time, P.T. Barnum also had a mummy and that was the amount he charged, so it was sort of like the going rate for that kind of thing. Anyway, she’d give people a tour of the house and act a guide when describing the mummies and papyri, and give everyone a little spiel of what they knew of them and what the papyri contained, and that was how she earned a living. That continued after Joseph’s death, when Lucy and Emma were sharing a home. She kept giving those little tours she died in 1856.

Less than two weeks after her death, Emma and her second husband sold the entire collection to a man named Abel Combs. These mummies weren’t in sarcophagi, they were just dead, mummified bodies hanging out in their house, and I’m sure Emma was probably creeped out by them, so she got rid of them. Anyway, Combs split the collection up and sold most of it to the St. Louis Museum. The St. Louis Museum sold it to the Wood Museum. Wood eventually relocated his museum to Chicago. Then, the Great Chicago Fire hit in 1871. It burned the Wood Museum to the ground, and destroyed the mummies and the papyrus rolls. Everyone assumed that was the end of it because they didn’t realize Combs had divided the collection. He’d kept the fragments that were mounted under glass and two of the mummies.

Those fragments moved through various hands until eventually, they were offered to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1917. They took one look at them, realized what they were, and said, “No, thanks.” They didn’t want any part of what Gee termed a “religious hot potato.” But 30 years later in 1947, a curator from that same museum was about to retire, so he figured, “Why not?” and scooped them up. The museum didn’t want to deal with any potential scandals involving the papyri, so they kept them pretty confidential during the next two decades. They weren’t in good enough condition to display, anyway, so they basically gathered dust for a while. Then, in 1966, Aziz Atiya, a Coptic Christian who taught at the University of Utah, contacted the Met and told them he was coming to do research on their Coptic collections. The museum staff decided this was the perfect chance to offload the papyri and wash their hands of it. They set the Coptic collections out for Atiya and were like, “Hey, we also have these, do you think any of your Mormon colleagues would want them?” Atiya didn’t have any colleagues who knew anyone high up in the Church, so it took him a little while to reach someone who could confirm whether or not the Church was interested in obtaining them. Once he did, the Church reached out to the Met, and the de-acquisition process began. Finally, about a year later, the Church was given the papyri over Thanksgiving weekend, 1967, and they’ve had them ever since.

What the Church received were 11 fragments taken from three different papyri, which include two partial copies of the Egyptian Book of the Dead and one partial copy of the Book of Breathings. Everything else, including the scrolls described by numerous eyewitnesses, was lost.

The very easiest thing to counter is the inference that the Church only admitted the papyri fragments were not the Book of Abraham in 2014. (If Jeremy is not trying to imply that, there would be no reason to stress the date of the essay as he did.) As I mentioned, the Church received the papyri fragments from the Metropolitan Museum of Art at the end of November, 1967. They were then published in the January, 1968 issue of the Improvement Era, and stated on the front page of the article (in paragraph 4 of the linked document) that they were Egyptian funeral texts. It can hardly be claimed that the Church was covering up that information when they published it just over a month after they received the papyri.

We also know for a fact that we do not have all of the papyri Joseph had:

Between the current fragments and some very bad copies of characters from the papyri, we know that Joseph Smith had papyri or portions of papyri from at least five individuals:

  • Horos, son of Osoroeris and Chibois
  • Semminis, daughter of Eschons
  • Amenothis, son of Tanoub
  • a woman with the unique name of Noufianoub
  • a man named Sesonchis

Comparing the copies of the papyri with the fragments indicates that in no case do we have a complete record of what Joseph Smith had from these two sources alone.

Eyewitnesses from the Nauvoo period (1839–1844) describe “a quantity of records, written on papyrus, in Egyptian hieroglyphics,” including (1) some papyri “preserved under glass,” described as “a number of glazed slides, like picture frames, containing sheets of papyrus, with Egyptian inscriptions and hieroglyphics”; (2) “a long roll of manuscript” that contained the Book of Abraham; (3) “another roll”; and (4) “two or three other small pieces of papyrus, with astronomical calculations, epitaphs, &c.” Only the mounted fragments ended up in the Metropolitan Museum of Art and were subsequently given back to the Church of Jesus Christ. The eyewitnesses not only describe the papyri, but they also describe specific vignettes or pictures on the papyri. When eyewitnesses described the vignettes as being on the papyri mounted under glass, they can be matched with the fragments from the Metropolitan Museum of Art. On the other hand, when the vignettes are described as being on the rolls, the descriptions do not match any of the currently surviving fragments. Gustav Seyffarth’s 1859 catalog of the museum in St. Louis indicates that some of the Joseph Smith Papyri were there. Those papyri moved with the Wood Museum to Chicago and were burned in the Chicago Fire in 1871. Whatever we conjecture their contents to be is only that: conjecture.

In the same article, using a standard formula for determining scroll length, Gee estimates there are approximately 8-12 feet missing from the Semminis scroll and between 20-41 feet missing from the Horus scroll. However, in another article he discusses how tenuous those results are and how difficult it is to prove the length of a scroll that no longer exists. The entire Amenophis scroll or document is missing, as well. There are only a few lines of characters from that papyrus written down in notes, so we know it existed but we don’t have any part of it left today. Beyond that, we only have most of one of the facsimiles on the fragments. We know for a fact that there is missing papyri because we don’t have the originals of either of the other two facsimiles.

Note: The names of the owners of the scrolls take different forms and spellings depending on the author/publication. Horos is sometimes Hor or Horus. Semminis is sometimes Tsemminis. Amenothis is sometimes Amenophis. Sesonchis is sometimes Sheshonq or Sheshaq.

In another article entitled “Eyewitness, Hearsay, and Physical Evidence of the J.S. Papyri”, Gee explains:

By 1836, after much moving and handling, the papyri had suffered damage to the outer edges of the rolls. A transcription of portions of the Tsemmenis roll probably done in 1835 shows squiggle marks used to indicate the edge of the papyrus, showing that portions had already come loose. That the papyri were beginning to break into little pieces is demonstrated by the tiny fragments patched in the wrong places in the mounted papyri. The backing paper is dated to the Kirtland period. Only the damaged outer portions of the rolls were mounted on paper; the remainder of the papyri, still being in relatively good condition, were left as rolls. This explains all the eyewitness reports and the remaining physical evidence. Joseph Smith’s own concern was shown when he committed the Egyptian antiquities into the hands of Joseph Coe (who had assisted in their purchase) in February 1836: “I complied with his request, and only observed that they must be managed with prudence and care, especially the manuscripts.” … The present Joseph Smith Papyri all come from these mounted fragments from the end of the rolls; none of the rolls has been preserved.

And again, taken from a transcript of an interview he did with the LDS Perspectives podcast:

If we look through the 19th century eyewitness statements, they describe mounted fragments, and these rolls that they have. Whenever they’re talking about the Book of Abraham, they always say it comes from one of the rolls. This is even when they’ve got the fragments, we have the mounted fragments, not the rolls. The Book of Abraham was supposed to be on the rolls, not the fragments. When we look at the fragments, and we see: “Yeah, they don’t contain the Book of Abraham. They contain the Book of the Dead and a Document of Breathings made by Isis, and that’s not the Book of Abraham.” But if we look at the 19th century eyewitnesses, this is the material that doesn’t have the Book of Abraham on it. The fact that we can translate this and say, “Yes, this doesn’t contain the Book of Abraham,” that just confirms what the 19th century eyewitnesses said. The Book of Abraham is on the rolls, not the fragments. We have the fragments, not the rolls.

And, from yet another article of Gee’s about it:

Both Mormon and non-Mormon eyewitnesses from the nineteenth century agree that it was a “roll of papyrus from which our prophet translated the Book of Abraham,” meaning the “long roll of manuscript” and not one of the mounted fragments that eventually ended up in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The fragments we have are loose scraps that broke off the ends of the rolls of papyrus and were preserved under glass. We don’t have any of the body of the rolls left. So, it’s just not true that “the original papyrus that Joseph translated has been found,” as Jeremy claims. Some of the original papyri has been found, but not all of it has, and we certainly can’t say that what we have is what Joseph translated. We know conclusively that Joseph translated or explained parts of two facsimiles that we do not have today, and we know that the bulk of the papyri was lost in the Chicago Fire.

As for the fact that the Book of Abraham declares it to have been written by Abraham’s “own hand upon papyrus,” Stephen Smoot outlines the criticism here:

The criticism, as has been repeated in many parts of the Internet and beyond, usually runs something like this: (1) Joseph Smith claimed that the Book of Abraham was written “by his own hand, upon papyrus,” meaning Abraham himself handwrote the text Joseph Smith translated. (2) The surviving papyri fragments date to circa 200–150 BCE. (3) Abraham, by contrast, is usually dated to having lived circa 2000 BCE. (4) Therefore, Joseph Smith’s claim that the Book of Abraham was written “by his own hand, upon papyrus” is false. (5) Therefore, the Book of Abraham is not authentic, or, therefore, Joseph Smith was a false prophet.

However, as Kerry Muhlestein points out:

In regard to this assumption, I ask, who said this particular papyrus was written by Abraham himself? The heading does not indicate that Abraham had written that particular copy but rather that he was the author of the original. What these critics have done is confuse the difference between a text and a manuscript. For example, many people have a copy of J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings; each has a manuscript copy of the text that Tolkien originally wrote. A text, regardless of how many copies of it exist in the world, is written by one author. However, each copy of that text is a manuscript. … We all know that when an author of the ancient world wrote something, if those writings were to survive or be disseminated, the text had to be copied again and again and again, for generation upon generation. When the heading states that the text was written by Abraham’s own hand, it notes who the author is, not who copied down the particular manuscript that came into Joseph’s possession. If critics had carefully thought through this issue, they would never have raised it.

As Hugh Nibley explains in his fantastic book Abraham in Egypt:

Two important and peculiar aspects of ancient authorship must be considered when we are told that a writing is by the hand of Abraham or anybody else. One is that according to Egyptian and Hebrew thinking any copy of a book originally written by Abraham would be regarded and designated as the very work of his hand forever after, no matter how many reproductions had been made and handed down through the years. The other is that no matter who did the writing originally, if it was Abraham who commissioned or directed the work, he would take the credit for the actual writing of the document, whether he penned it or not.

As to the first point, when a holy book (usually a leather roll) grew old and worn out from handling, it was not destroyed but renewed. Important writings were immortal—for the Egyptians they were “the divine words,” for the Jews the very letters were holy and indestructible, being the word of God. The wearing out of a particular copy of scripture therefore in no way brought the life of the book to a close—it could not perish. In Egypt it was simply renewed “fairer than before,” and so continued its life to the next renewal. … It is not a case of the old book’s being replaced by a new one, but of the original book itself continuing its existence in a rejuvenated state. No people were more hypnotized by the idea of a renewal of lives than the Egyptians—not a succession of lives or a line of descent, but the actual revival and rejuvenation of a single life.

Even the copyist who puts his name in a colophon does so not so much as publicity for himself as to vouch for the faithful transmission of the original book; his being “trustworthy of fingers,” i.e., a reliable copyist, is the reader’s assurance that he has the original text before him. An Egyptian document, J. Spiegel observes, is like the print of an etching, which is not only a work of art in its own right but “can lay claim equally well to being the original … regardless of whether the individual copies turn out well or ill.” Because he thinks in terms of types, according to Spiegel, for the Egyptian “there is no essential difference between an original and a copy. For as they understand it, all pictures are but reproductions of an ideal original.”

This concept was equally at home in Israel. An interesting passage from the Book of Jubilees [a text unknown before 1850] recounts that Joseph while living in Egypt “remembered the Lord and the words which Jacob, his father, used to read from amongst the words of Abraham.” Here is a clear statement that “the words of Abraham” were handed down in written form from generation to generation, and were the subject of serious study in the family circle. The same source informs us that when Israel died and was buried in Canaan, “he gave all his books and the books of his fathers to Levi his son that he might preserve them and renew them for his children until this day.” Here “the books of the fathers” including “the words of Abraham” have been preserved for later generations by a process of renewal. [Joseph’s own books were, of course, Egyptian books.]

In this there is no thought of the making of a new book by a new hand. It was a strict rule in Israel that no one, not even the most learned rabbi, should ever write down so much as a single letter of the Bible from memory: always the text must be copied letter by letter from another text that had been copied in the same way, thereby eliminating the danger of any man’s adding, subtracting, or changing so much as a single jot in the text. It was not a rewriting but a process as mechanical as photography, an exact visual reproduction, so that no matter how many times the book had been passed from hand to hand, it was always the one original text that was before one.

Nibley believed that the phrase was part of the original title of the document. Others have suggested that it being a holograph was just an assumption on Joseph’s part and the parts of others. Michael Ash states, “Now this issue is very similar to that of Book of Mormon geography. It is very likely that Joseph Smith believed in a hemispheric Book of Mormon geography–it made sense to his understanding of the world around him. Such a misinformed belief or most likely misinformed belief, according to modern scholarship, makes him no less a prophet. It simply provides us with an example of how Joseph, like any other human, tried to understand new information according to his current knowledge. So, likewise, with the Abrahamic papyri: Joseph, by way of revelation, saw that the papyri contained scriptural teachings of Abraham and it would have been natural, therefore, to assume that Abraham wrote the papyri.”

We know that the phrase “by his own hand upon papyrus” does appear in other Egyptian works, however. John Gee showed a picture of one during a 2012 FAIR presentation. (Note: It’s in Egyptian, so you’ll probably have to take his word for it.)

Smoot also points out that the Bible held similar phrases, and that “by the hand of” is the equivalent of today’s authorial “by”:

Consider these examples, all taken from the New Revised Standard Version.

  • Malachi 1:1– “An oracle. The word of the Lord to Israel by
  • Haggai 1:1– “In the second year of King Darius, in the sixth month, on the first day of the month, the word of the Lord came by the prophet Haggai to Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel, governor of Judah, and to Joshua son of Jehozadak, the high priest.”
  • Haggai 2:1– “In the second year of King Darius, in the seventh month, on the twenty-first day of the month, the word of the Lord came by the prophet Haggai.”
  • Zechariah 7:7– “Were not these the words that the Lord proclaimed by the former prophets?”
  • Zechariah 7:12– “They made their hearts adamant in order not to hear the law and the words that the Lord of hosts had sent by his spirit through the former prophets.”

The Hebrew text in each highlighted instance above literally reads “by the hand” (bĕ yad), even though it is rendered by modern translators as simply “by” (or, in the last case, “through”). The reason for this is obvious: this idiom (“by the hand of so-and-so”) is merely the ancient equivalent of the modern “by so-and-so,” as in “Great Expectations by Charles Dickens,” “Nathan der Weise by Gotthold Ephraim Lessing,” or “The Call of Cthulhu by H.P. Lovecraft.”

The other possibility Nibley mentioned is that the work was commissioned by Abraham, but recorded by someone else at his behest. That was a standard ancient practice, too. Smoot explains, “Although an ‘autobiography’ in the sense that it is written in the 1st person, the Book of Abraham could very well have been the product of a scribe recording Abraham’s material in a similar fashion to Šarruwa recording Idrimi’s material.”

And on Tim Barker’s blog, he quotes Egyptologist Jan Assmann:

To be sure, the Egyptian portraits are not self-portraits in our sense of the term, nor are the biographical inscriptions autobiographies in our sense. It is not the self of an artist or writer which is revealed by a statue or speaking in an inscription, but the self of the patron who had the portrait sculptured or the inscription carved. What matters is the “self” that gives the order, not the one that executes it. … For underlying almost every Egyptian inscription and every monument there is such an “order-giving self.”

When we say that we’re remodeling our bathroom, for example, most of the time we’re not the ones doing the actual remodeling. We’re the ones paying for someone else to do the remodeling, but we’re still taking credit for it. That’s the same idea being expressed here, that for Egyptians and others of that time period, when you had someone else write something for you, you were considered its author.

Nibley further explains this point:

… [I]n a very recent study M.A. Korostovstev notes that “for an Egyptian to attach his name to a written work was an infallible means of passing it down through the centuries.” That may be one reason why Abraham chose the peculiar Egyptian medium he did for the transmission of his record—or at least why it has reached us only in this form. Indeed Theodor Böhl observed recently that the one chance the original Patriarchal literature would ever have of surviving would be to have it written down on Egyptian papyrus. … [W]hoever is credited with the authorship of a book remains its unique author, alone responsible for its existence in whatever form.

So when we read “the Book of Abraham, written by his own hand upon papyrus,” we are to understand that this book, no matter how often “renewed,” is still the writing of Abraham and no one else; for he commissioned it or, “according to the accepted Egyptian expression,” wrote it himself with his own hand. And when Abraham tells us, “That you may have an understanding of these gods, I have given you the fashion of them in the figures at the beginning,” we do not need to suppose that the patriarch himself necessarily drew the very sketches we have before us. … [W]hatever the first author wrote remained forever “by his own hand.”

As these quotes all clearly show, expecting the papyrus fragments in question to have been written by Abraham himself is a weird criticism. Nephi didn’t personally type “I Nephi” at the beginning of each of our copies of the Book of Mormon. Nearly every ancient book we have is a copy of a copy of a copy of a copy, etc., so why would the Book of Abraham be any different?


Sources in this entry:


Sarah Allen is brand new in her affiliation with FAIR. By profession, she works in mortgage compliance and is a freelance copyeditor. A voracious reader, she loves studying the Gospel and the history of the restored Church. After watching some of her lose their testimonies, she became interested in helping others through their faith crises and began sharing what she learned through her studies. She’s grateful to those at FAIR who have given her the opportunity to share her testimony with a wider audience.


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