Part 19: CES Letter Book of Abraham Questions [Section J]


by Sarah Allen


This has been a long section of “questions” and we’re not quite done yet, but I think we’ll be able to wrap up the Book of Abraham section this week and move on to the next set of questions next week. I’m sure everyone’s getting ready for a change in topic by now, so it’ll be good to dive into something new.

This entire post may as well be about source bias as anything else. To start the ball rolling on this week’s group of accusations (they are less actual questions this week and more biased statements masquerading as facts), Jeremy Runnells links to a commentary video about an interview Elder Holland did for a BBC documentary (which aired in the US on PBS) on our church during Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential run.

As some quick background, John Sweeney, a reporter for the BBC, put together a documentary titled The Mormon Candidate that was…well, to put it bluntly, it was insane. It was like something out of the National Enquirer. I remember watching it and thinking, “Wait, isn’t the BBC supposed to be reputable?” You can watch the full documentary here, but I couldn’t find any clips of just Elder Holland’s interview without slanted commentary insinuating that he was lying.

The documentary was full of errors like repeatedly confusing chapels and temples, interviews with polygamists (whom we are apparently “afraid of”) and crazy ex-members who made claims about the Church having them followed, “Mormon spies” who are trained by the CIA to keep tabs on the members who are “considered dangerous,” and a very heavily edited interview with Elder Holland. Sweeney repeated the claim from The Godmakers that we believe we each get our own planet when we die, as well as that we believe we are the only chosen people of God. He claimed that the Church is in charge of the Utah state school system. He highlighted the re-drawing of Facsimile 1 by Charles Larson that a noted, non-Latter-day Saint Egyptologist called “seriously flawed.” He claimed that Joseph Smith was convicted of being a fraud in New York, which there is no evidence of. Joseph was charged, yes, but the supposed victim of his fraud, Josiah Stowell, testified in Joseph’s defense (as did several of his family members) and Stowell later joined the Church, in which he remained a faithful member until his death.

Sweeney also interviewed a woman who left the Church while Romney was her bishop because, she claimed, she was threatened with excommunication if she wouldn’t give her son to the Church and she wanted to raise him herself. Rather than the Church itself, it seems clear Romney was talking about putting the baby up for adoption through Family Services as she was a single sister at the time, and that the reason she was facing Church discipline was because she was unmarried and violating the law of chastity. For what it’s worth, Romney denied he threatened her with the possibility of excommunication over the situation. Obviously, personal issues with Mitt Romney are not the same thing as criticisms against the Church, but the insinuation that the Church is in the habit of stealing babies is rather extreme and should be addressed.

Sweeney stated the Church “aggressively watches over its members,” and interviewed multiple people who claimed we were a Pagan cult who brainwashes people and destroys their family relationships and careers when they leave the Church, and who said that we worship the prophet and money. The only people who had anything positive to say about the Church throughout the entire thing were Elder Holland, three missionaries who answered one question each, Mia Love, Alex Boye, Brandon Flowers, and the author of a book about Romney—and Brandon’s segment was just some short clips from his “I’m a Mormon” video. Combined, they were given between 5-10 minutes of airtime of the 60-minute documentary. The rest was one slanderous accusation after another against the Church for approximately 40 minutes, followed by a few minutes of personal accusations against Romney before wrapping up. It was hardly a neutral piece.

This is the part that Jeremy Runnells chose to focus on:

Elder Jeffrey R. Holland was directly asked about the papyri not matching the Book of Abraham in a March 2012 BBC interview:

 Sweeney: “Mr. Smith got this papyri and he translated them and subsequently as the Egyptologists cracked the code, something completely different…”

 Holland: “(Interrupts) All I’m saying…all I’m saying is that what got translated got translated into the word of God. The vehicle for that, I do not understand and don’t claim to know, and know no Egyptian.”

 Is “I don’t know and I don’t understand but it’s the word of God” really the best answer that a “prophet, seer, and revelator” can come up with to such a profound problem and stumbling block that is driving many members out of the Church?

Once again, Runnells seems to have a very fundamental misunderstanding of what it means to be a prophet, seer, and revelator. Prophets are not omniscient. They don’t know everything about everything. They’re called to declare the Gospel to the world, not to be walking encyclopedias.

As we discussed before, the translation method of the Book of Abraham is unknown and is the topic of much debate today. The only person on this Earth who did know “the vehicle for that” died over 175 years ago. Even his own scribes seemed unsure exactly how it was happening. Considering how spotty the historical record is and how private Joseph was about sharing the details, “I don’t know how it was translated” is a perfectly legitimate response. It’s the same response I and every other believer in the Book of Abraham’s authenticity have. All we know is that somehow it happened by revelation. There’s nothing shameful about saying “I don’t know,” especially when there’s no concrete information available.

Jeremy continues with three quotes taken from Reverend Frank Spalding’s Joseph Smith, Jr., As a Translator: An Inquiry Conducted. This is the work I mentioned a few weeks ago in which the Reverend Spalding—half the sources say Spalding, the other half say Spaulding, so I just picked one—an Episcopalian bishop, wrote to a bunch of Egyptologists and asked them to critique Joseph’s work based on the facsimiles in the Pearl of Great Price:

The following are respected Egyptian scholars/Egyptologists statements regarding Joseph Smith and the Book of Abraham:

 “…these three facsimiles of Egyptian documents in the Pearl of Great Price depict the most common objects in the Mortuary religion of Egypt. Joseph Smith’s interpretations of them as part of a unique revelation through Abraham, therefore, very clearly demonstrates that he was totally unacquainted with the significance of these documents and absolutely ignorant of the simplest facts of Egyptian writing and civilization.” – Dr. James H. Breasted, University of Chicago, Joseph Smith, Jr., As a Translator, p.26-27

 “It may be safely said that there is not one single word that is true in these explanations.” – Dr. W.M. Flinders Petrie, London University, Joseph Smith, Jr., As a Translator, p.24

 “It is difficult to deal seriously with Joseph Smith’s impudent fraud…Smith has turned the goddess [Isis in Facsimile #3] into a king and Osiris into Abraham.” – Dr. A.H. Sayce, Oxford professor of Egyptology, Joseph Smith, Jr., As a Translator, p.23

As you can see, these quotes are pretty outdated. We’ve already demonstrated in previous weeks how incorrect they are, and there’s a good reason for that. This book was published in 1912, over a century ago. It’s as old as the Titanic. Archibald Sayce was born in 1845, just a little over a year after Joseph Smith was murdered. W.M. Flinders Petrie was born in 1853, four months after the ground was broken for the Salt Lake Temple. And the baby of the group, James Henry Breasted, was born in 1865, just three months after the US Civil War ended. The field of Egyptology is younger than the Church itself, and we know considerably more about ancient Egyptian culture, language, and art today than we did in 1912. For someone who relies so heavily on what “modern Egyptologists say,” you’d think Jeremy Runnells could come up with some more recent quotes than these ones.

Regardless, this book was rebutted in many places, beginning with the February 1913 Improvement Era. One of those rebuttals was in the form of a series of Improvement Era articles written by Hugh Nibley titled “A New Look at the Pearl of Great Price,” which spanned two years. That series is archived at, a series that I discovered by hunting down the sources in Jim Bennett’s CES Letter rebuttal. Because it’s a solid summary of the situation, I’m going to quote the same passage Bennett did, taken from the series’ Conclusion:

At that time it was claimed that the pronouncements of five of the greatest scholars of all time had “completely demolished” all grounds for belief in the divine inspiration or historic authenticity of the Book of Abraham and, through it, the Book of Mormon. It turned out, however, that Bishop Franklin S. Spalding, in gathering and manipulating the necessary evidence for his determined and devious campaign, had (1) disqualified the Mormons from all participation in the discussion on the grounds that they were not professional Egyptologists; (2) sent special warnings and instructions to his experts that made it impossible for any of them to decide for Joseph Smith; (3) concealed all correspondence that did not support the verdict he desired; (4) given the learned jury to understand that the original Egyptian manuscripts were available, which they were not; (5) said that Mormons claimed them to be the unique autobiographic writings and sketching of Abraham, which they did not; (6) announced to the world that Joseph Smith was being tested on linguistic grounds alone, specifically as a translator, though none of his experts ventured to translate a single word of the documents submitted; and (7) rested his case on the “complete agreement” of the scholars, who agreed on nothing save that the Book of Abraham was a hoax.

The experts (1) did not agree among themselves at all when they spoke without collusion; (2) with the exception of James H. Breasted, they wrote only brief and contemptuous notes, though it was claimed that they had given the documents “careful consideration”; (3) they admitted that they were hasty and ill-tempered, since they at no time considered anything of Joseph Smith’s worth any serious attention at all; (4) they translated nothing and produced none of the “identical” documents, which, according to them, were available in countless numbers and proved Joseph Smith’s interpretations a fraud. They should have done much better than they did since they had everything their own way, being free to choose for interpretation and comment whatever was easiest and most obvious, and to pass by in complete silence the many formidable problems presented by the three facsimiles. Those Mormons who ventured a few polite and diffident questions about the consistency of the criticisms or the completeness of the evidence instantly called down upon their heads the Jovian bolts of the New York Times, accusing them of “reviling scholars and scholarship.” A safer setup for the critics of Joseph Smith could not be imagined. And yet it was they and not the Mormons who insisted on calling off the whole show just when it was getting interesting. It was not a very edifying performance.

Brian Hales included another quote from Kevin Barney regarding Spalding’s work in his reply that is also worth reading, but I wanted to save some room so I’m just going to link it rather than quote it.

For that same reason, I’m also going to link the last set of Jeremy’s statements here, so that we have space to talk about the evidence in favor of the Book of Abraham before we wrap up this section.

Contrary to what some Mormon apologists claim or imply, a person does not have to be an Egyptologist or a scholar with a PhD to clearly understand the Book of Abraham problems and challenges to Joseph Smith’s claims of being a translator.

This will likely be the one and only time in this series that I agree with Jeremy. I’m neither of those things, and I think I’ve done a fairly adequate job of boiling all of these complex issues down into (mostly) easy-to-understand bits and pieces—Facsimile 2 concepts notwithstanding.

You don’t need a bunch of fancy degrees to understand this stuff, or to recognize the questions and to go hunting for the answers. You just need to know where to start looking, and that’s one of the reasons why I’m writing these posts, to say, “There are answers out there, and here are some sources to help get you started.”

Of all the issues, the Book of Abraham is the issue that has both fascinated and disturbed me the most. It is the issue that I’ve spent the most time researching because it offers a real insight into Joseph’s modus operandi as well as Joseph’s claim of being a translator. It is the smoking gun that has completely obliterated my testimony of Joseph Smith and his claims.

That is truly a shame, and for that, I’m sorry. I think the Book of Abraham is beautiful and faith-affirming, and so is its scholarship. After the Book of Mormon, the Book of Abraham is my favorite thing to study. There are so many unanswered questions and interesting angles and facets to consider, you never get bored. And none of it has to rock your testimony if you don’t want it to. Remember, not all answers come immediately, and that’s okay. It’s not a race. However, we do have some fascinating answers so far.

Over the past 8 or 9 weeks, we have covered a ton of material about the Book of Abraham. Some of that has been evidences that point toward the book’s historicity/being an authentic ancient record of Abraham, such as chiasmus, the four idolatrous gods, a geocentric view of the universe, the name Shulem being attested to in the exact right time periods, or Egyptian wordplay. But there are more evidences that just didn’t fit under any of the concerns Runnells listed…and I’m pretty sure that was by design. There are things he can’t wave away if he’s being honest, just like Robert Ritner can’t—so, also just like Dr. Ritner, he simply chose to pretend they don’t exist. But they do.

While we’ve covered the history of the papyri, the fragments and facsimiles, the translation method, etc., we haven’t really discussed much of the content of the Book of Abraham. That is where the most interesting scholarship is being done, in my opinion. I wanted to drop a few resources up front before we start getting into specifics. provided a great page with videos and numerous articles to study the Book of Abraham. FAIR and the Interpreter both cross-posted another list of resources, though the FAIR one has some additional updates that the Interpreter doesn’t. They go over a lot of the basics pertaining to the actual content of the book and the research being done on that.

So, what is some of that research? Well, for starters, there are many minor evidences like a council of the gods being widely attested in ancient writings, particularly during a rebellion or conflict between good and evil; the Abrahamic covenant following ancient treaty guidelines; the concept of divine foreordination; similarities in creation mythology; Abraham being warned by Jehovah about the danger of naming Sarah as his wife to the Pharaoh (as well as some further Egyptian wordplay); a northern location for Ur matching local Christian, Jewish, and Muslim traditions; Egyptians practicing human sacrifice despite no evidence of that for centuries; and ancient autobiographies told in a similar style. But those really are minor evidences compared to some of the others.

One of the major ones that I’ve briefly mentioned before is Olishem. Abraham 1:10 describes the sacrificial altar he was going to be killed on as being “at the head of the plain of Olishem.” This plain is near or possibly even surrounding Abraham’s homeland of Ur of the Chaldees.

For a century and a half, this was just one of the many unusual terms you come across in the Book of Abraham without a modern-day equivalent. However, a possible location has now been identified, an ancient city called Ulišum. While the exact location of the city is still in question, they know the general area it was in and the evidence of its existence is strong.

Pearl of Great Price Central gives us some background information:

… It isn’t clear from the text whether the plain itself was Olishem, or whether some city or region in the area to which the plain was adjacent was Olishem, or if the plain takes its name from a major city on the plain.

 … In 1985, a Latter-day Saint archaeologist named John M. Lundquist published a pioneering article situating the Book of Abraham in a plausible ancient geographical and cultural environment in northern Mesopotamia. Among the points discussed by Lundquist was the plausible identification of Olishem with the ancient place name Ulisum (or Ulishum). Lundquist pointed to inscriptional evidence dating to the time of the Akkadian king Naram-Sin (who reigned circa 2254–2218 BC) which spoke of Ulisum in what is today northern Syria or southern Turkey. Scholars have debated the location of this ancient city and at least half a dozen different sites have been proposed over the years.

 In 2013, excavators at the Turkish site of Oylum Höyük near the Syrian border announced that it was the ancient Ulisum mentioned in the inscription of Naram-Sin and identified it as “the city of Abraham.”

 … The evidence for the proposed site is not conclusive. There are still gaps in the archaeological and inscriptional record that preclude a definitive identification of the Book of Abraham’s Olishem with Ulisum and with any particular archaeological site. (For one thing, no inscriptional evidence at the site of Oylum Höyük mentions the ancient name of the site.) Nevertheless, the following can be said with a fair amount of certainty: 

  • There is definitely an ancient site with the name Ulisum or Ulishum.

  • There is no agreement as to the precise location of Ulisum, but it can most likely be identified in a specific general region (southeastern Turkey near the Syrian border). Many scholars are interested in exploring where precisely Ulisum may be in this region.

  • Olishem is a name from the Book of Abraham, which matches the phonetics and time period of the known site of Ulishum.

  • The region of the ancient Ulisum matches well with some geographic interpretations of the Book of Abraham.

To add to that list, I would highlight again the fact that non-Latter-day Saints working on a dig in Turkey believed they found Ulišum and referred to it as “the city of Abraham.”

There was, without a doubt, an ancient location named Ulišum in the area in which Abraham was said by tradition to have been born and raised, dating from the time period in which he lived, whose name is pronounced very similarly to Olishem. We know that for a fact. While we can’t yet point to an exact spot on the map and say, “It used to be right here,” we know it existed in the general area.

This evidence of its approximate location is so strong, it was included in the Church’s official essay about the Book of Abraham:

The book of Abraham contains other details that are consistent with modern discoveries about the ancient world. The book speaks of “the plain of Olishem,” a name not mentioned in the Bible. An ancient inscription, not discovered and translated until the 20th century, mentions a town called “Ulisum,” located in northwestern Syria.

FAIR also has a short podcast dedicated solely to this topic, and Kerry Muhlestein stated:

Abraham talks about a particular spot around Ur and Haran; while there is some disagreement about where Abraham’s Ur actually was, most Latter-day Saint scholars who have considered the evidence provided in the Book of Abraham think that the most likely candidate is somewhere just east of Haran. Abraham names a spot nearby as the plains of Olishem (see Abraham 1:10). This is a name that no one had heard of during Joseph Smith’s day; but since the Book of Abraham uses a number of terms that no one has encountered elsewhere, Olishem did not stand out in any way at first. However, discoveries of ancient texts since Joseph’s day revealed two texts—one from before Abraham’s time and one roughly contemporary—name a location near Haran called Olishem. The chances that Joseph Smith would make up a fictional, outlandish place that turned out to be accurate in name, time, and location are too astronomical even to be considered. I do not know how that fact could be interpreted as anything other than evidence that Joseph Smith was really translating an ancient document.

And the truly remarkable thing is, he did it twice, once with Olishem from the Book of Abraham and once with Nahom from the Book of Mormon. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that this happened with our two most controversial books of scripture. They aren’t definitive proof that Joseph was a prophet, of course, but they’re pretty big bullseyes.

And there’s more. In what John Gee once said was the strongest piece of evidence in favor of the Book of Abraham’s historicity, Abraham 3:13 states that Shinehah is the sun. How is that evidence? It’s an actual Egyptian word from Abraham’s day referring to the path of the sun:

One of the astronomical terms defined in the Book of Abraham is Shinehah, which is said to be the sun. … We do not know how Joseph Smith intended this word to be pronounced; whether, for instance, shine-hah or shi-ney-hah or some other way. However it is pronounced, contrary to the claim made by some of Joseph Smith’s skeptics, there is evidence that Shinehah is an authentic ancient Egyptian word.

 … Among other things, the Pyramid Texts provided astronomical or cosmological information meant to help guide the deceased on this afterlife journey. “Since it was predicated on the Sun’s daily cycle of death and rebirth, the deceased’s own afterlife was envisioned as a journey in company with the Sun.” The path of the sun through the sky from east to west, known as the ecliptic, was envisioned in the Pyramid Texts as a celestial canal or waterway that bisected the sky into northern and southern hemispheres.

 … There are two names given for this celestial canal or waterway (the sun’s ecliptic) in the Pyramid Texts. The more common spelling is mr-n-ḫꜣ and is translated by Egyptologist James Allen as “Winding Canal.” A less common but still attested second name for this same “Winding Canal” in the Pyramid Texts is spelled in a way that by Abraham’s time would have probably been pronounced similar to shi-ne-hah (š[ỉ]-n-ḫꜣ). Although they alternate in the Pyramid Texts, the different spellings of the name would have likely been seen as being synonymous, and so Egyptologists today typically standardize the spelling to read all attestations of the name the more common way (mr-n-ḫꜣ). Despite this, the name survived into Abraham’s day in texts known today as the Coffin Texts (which were, in part, something of a “direct descendant” of the Pyramid Texts) predominantly as š(ỉ)-n-ḫꜣ.

From this evidence it is clear that both š(ỉ)-n-ḫꜣ and mr-n-ḫꜣ are attested as names for the sun’s ecliptic. The latter is more common in the Old Kingdom (circa 2686–2181 BC) but the former is more common in the Middle Kingdom (circa 2040-1782 BC) and thus Abraham’s day. The spelling of the name as attested in the Coffin Texts from Abraham’s day matches the spelling of Shinehah in the Book of Abraham fairly closely. … So while the Egyptian word for the sun itself is not the same as in the Book of Abraham, one of the Egyptian words for the sun’s ecliptic (the path of the sun through the sky) as attested in Abraham’s day is.

Another bullseye for Joseph. And there’s even more.

One of the books that I have recommended many, many times to people is a compilation called Traditions About the Early Life of Abraham. This book is probably one of the very best resources about Abraham himself that’s out there today. It’s fantastic, but there’s a caveat: when I purchased this book, it was $30 and well worth the price. In fact, it’s probably worth double that if it’s a subject you’re interested in. However, it’s going for a $200 asking price right now. It’s out of print, it’s hard to find, I absolutely recommend it, but the information is available from other resources. Don’t bankrupt yourself to buy this book, as great as it is.

Having said that, there’s a reason I like this book so much. There are a whole bunch of stories about Abraham out there in ancient writings that didn’t make it into the Bible. Many of those things did, however, make it into the Book of Abraham. This list is only some of those similar themes and events:

  • Idolatry was practiced in Ur, including by members of Abraham’s own family and especially his father, Terah
  • Abraham’s family knew astronomy
  • Abraham knew how to read and write and kept records of his own
  • Abraham sought out God rather than turning to the idolatry of his fathers, and teaches his family to do the same
  • Abraham destroys idols and is in danger
  • There is a famine in Ur and the surrounding areas
  • Abraham specifically refers to idols of “wood and stone” in the book of Jubilees (22:18), just like in the Book of Abraham
  • Abraham was nearly sacrificed
  • God or His angel saved him
  • God destroyed idols on Abraham’s behalf
  • Abraham preached repentance to his fathers, who refused to turn away from their idolatry and were the ones who tried to have him killed
  • Terah repented of his sins but eventually returned to his idolatry
  • Fighting idolatry being a central theme in the life of Abraham
  • Human sacrifice, particularly that of children
  • Abraham having and teaching from ancient records
  • Abraham was a high priest, something not mentioned in the Bible
  • Abraham was a missionary who preached the gospel wherever he went
  • Abraham taught astronomy to the Egyptians and others
  • Abraham learned many of those cosmological teachings from God Himself
  • Abraham is honored by kings
  • Abraham taught in the Pharaoh’s court and was allowed to sit on his throne as a favored guest
  • Abraham sought out knowledge
  • God warned Abraham that the Pharaoh would try to kill him to take Sarah as his
  • God showed Abraham the heavens and the souls living there
  • Abraham had a Urim and Thummim/a glowing stone/a stone that healed people
  • God taught Abraham about the Creation
  • Egyptian influence in the Chaldees
  • And many other similarities

The Book of Abraham aligns very, very well with other ancient traditions about the man. The vast majority of these records were either not discovered in Joseph’s day, weren’t translated into English, or weren’t available in the United States until well after his death. There are fewer than five of these records that he possibly could have borrowed things from, but there’s no evidence he did or that he was even aware they existed. That there are so many of these similarities point strongly to the Book of Abraham being an ancient record itself.

So, this concludes this section! As I’ve said, this is a book that I love, and there are so many things supporting it. I understand having questions about it; I do, too. But I do not doubt that Joseph Smith really did translate an ancient record by the power of God that became our Book of Abraham. The more I study this book and the scholarship surrounding it, the more convinced I am of that. There is too much to overlook in order to wave it away. If this is a topic you’re struggling with, please know that there is information out there that can help. Don’t give up and toss the book out like Jeremy Runnells did just because the topic is a complex one. Don’t let your questions turn into doubts when there is so much in its favor.




Sources in this entry:’m_saying_is_that_what_got_translated_got_translated_into_the_word_of_God%22–showmen-and-prophe/mummies-on-the-move-again


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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