By His Own Hand Upon Papyrus Part 1
By His Own Hand Upon Papyrus Part 1
A New Look at the Joseph Smith Papyri — Part 1 (Chapters 1-4)
Notice: By His Own Hand Upon Papyrus by Charles M. Larson is Copyright © 1992 by the Institute for Religious Research in both its printed and electronic forms. Users of the Mormons In Transition Internet web site have permission to download it and make one printed copy and one computer disk copy for their personal use. Permission may be granted to make additional copies, but only after a request is submitted to the publisher. Please make your request in writing to the Institute for Religious Research, 1340 Monroe NW, Grand Rapids MI 49505, USA.
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One of the most exciting events in modern Mormon history was the rediscovery of some of the Egyptian papyri which the Prophet Joseph Smith had in his possession when he produced his Book of Abraham translations. Long thought to have been destroyed in a fire in Chicago, they had in reality found their way to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City where they resurfaced in 1967. Their rediscovery established for certain that Joseph Smith had authentic Egyptian documents on which he based his translation of the Abrahamic work now published in the Pearl of Great Price.
The rediscovery of these ''Joseph Smith Papyri,'' as they have come to be known, sent scholars rushing in all directions to explore the meaning and full implications of these texts. Articles and books have flooded the market examining every facet of these documents.
For a long time the average reader has needed someone to bring into manageable form this mass of material. Charles Larson has had the patience and skill to render us this service. Complications have been reduced to understandable terms, various theories have been set forth and evaluated, and the essential facts have always been kept before the reader's eyes. To do these things with clarity requires more than a brief pamphlet, yet Mr. Larson has kept the task within a commendably brief span. The reader who stays with this book until the final sentence will find himself amply rewarded with a knowledge of all the facets of these most significant documents.
Unlike the gold plates of the Book of Mormon, which scholars were never able to examine, these Egyptian texts give us the actual documents from which Joseph Smith was working in making his translation. Therefore, they give us the first real opportunity to examine the Prophet's claims objectively and scientifically. Mr. Larson has provided us with all the pertinent data we need to reach our own conclusions on this much discussed and important topic.
— Wesley P. Walters
How It All Began: The Mormon Story
The Mormon church began with a man who claimed a vision. For nearly nineteen centuries God had been silent; neither his voice nor his messengers had been heard upon the earth since the days of Christ's apostles. For long ages the world had to depend upon only the Bible as a spiritual guide, a record which many believed was poorly preserved, often improperly translated, difficult to understand, sprinkled throughout with additions made by men, and with many plain and precious parts lost. Forced to depend upon such a standard, the inevitable happened. Different opinions arose, factions erupted, and the one, True Church was racked by apostasy and division. Many splinter churches sprang up, each putting forth its own interpretation of the Bible.
But one event was about to change all of this. A new, latter-day prophet -- a young man named Joseph Smith -- was about to appear who would claim he had been given the mission of restoring the one, True Church and the fullness of the Gospel.
An angel had appeared to Joseph Smith four years earlier and revealed the hidden location of a sacred record, written on plates of gold. These plates, when translated, would settle once and for all the disputes which had arisen because of apostate Christendom's sole reliance upon the Bible. This revelation, given by supernatural power to Joseph Smith, was to become a new scripture to mankind. It would be a book pure and undefiled, translated from its ancient tongue by the gift and power of God operating through Joseph Smith.
Smith was now on his way to recover the hidden records. The time had arrived. It was the twenty-second day of September in the year 1827.
The golden plates turned out to be a record of the former inhabitants of the Americas, ancestors of the American Indians, who had journeyed to the new world from the land of Israel hundreds of years before the time of Christ. They had left a vivid account of their travels and wars, and of the teachings and visions of their prophets, and even of Christ's visit and ministry among them following his crucifixion and ascension on the other side of the world, knowing that these writings would one day come forth and speak to men "low out of the dust, as the voice of one having a familiar spirit."
The record, however, could not be translated by normal means or by an ordinary man. Written in a strange, long-forgotten language called Reformed Egyptian, only a person called and blessed of God could read and understand it.6 Joseph Smith could do so, but because of all the excitement and misunderstanding that the discovery of the strange plates caused, and the persecutions and moving he was forced to endure, it was more than two years before his translation was completed and ready for publication.
Finally, in the early spring of 1830 the Book of Mormon first appeared in print and shortly thereafter the one, True Church of God was re-established on the earth.
But circumstances were not favorable for the little church as it struggled to grow in those early days. The world seemed generally either hostile or indifferent to the claim of the Restoration of the Fullness of the Gospel, and after many months of heartfelt labor proselytizing throughout the area around Joseph Smith's home in upstate New York, his little group had scarcely enlisted the membership of a handful of families from his own neighborhood. The missionaries ranged farther and farther afield, selling their books and seeking their harvest of souls.
Then, for a while things began to look up. Word came from Ohio that the leader of a communal religious society had read the Book of Mormon and converted himself, his family, and several hundred of his followers. Joseph soon moved the center of the Church from New York to the town of Kirtland, Ohio, where the missionary effort was redoubled. One group was sent westward to preach to the Indians. These missionaries, after passing through the wilderness of Missouri, sent back a report of the vast, unspoiled beauty of that sparsely settled region. The Prophet received the word of the Lord that Missouri was to be Zion, the site of the City of New Jerusalem, and a fast growing colony of Latter-day Saints was soon established there in Jackson County. People from far away began to hear of this marvelous work, and steadily, more and more came to see whether God had indeed raised up a new prophet among men.
Things seemed to be going well, but this good fortune did not last long. Angry mobs rioted against the Saints in Jackson County and drove them from their homes as winter began to settle in. Joseph again received the word of the Lord, this time that he was to gather together an army from among the Saints in Ohio and march to reclaim their inheritance in Zion, where he said the Lord had promised them a mighty victory over their enemies. The army set out in the spring with Joseph at its head, but by the time it arrived in Missouri an outbreak of cholera had begun to rage through its ranks, dashing all hopes of redeeming Zion. Defeated, the weary soldiers drifted back to Ohio when they were well enough to travel, their homes and crops already neglected far too long. The word of the Lord given again by Joseph, explained that they had been turned back because of their unwillingness to be totally obedient to God's commandments. But many had started to lose faith in Joseph's calling as a prophet.
Once back in Kirtland, the murmuring against Joseph and the Church increased. There had always been some scoffing by the unbelieving in the neighborhood (the "gentiles," as the Saints called them), but now there were "apostates" at work as well. Though few in number, the growing sound of their voices as they joined the gentiles in deriding the prophet and his followers was having it's effect on Joseph's leadership. "How do we really know the Book of Mormon is what you say?" they would pointedly ask. "Show us the plates -- if there ever were any!" Of course Joseph could not do this; as he always maintained, he had given the gold plates back to the angel after finishing the translation, since he had no further use for them and they were the property of the angel in the first place.
There was also a certain amount of uneasiness and concern over some of the newer commandments being taught in the church -- things not a part of the Prophet's teaching in the beginning, when many had been baptized -- but which they now had to accept as Church doctrine. Joseph continued to receive new revelation from God, or at least said he did. But many seriously wondered how they could be sure without something tangible backing up Joseph's new teachings. Something . . . scriptural? Something more than the Book of Mormon, perhaps?
Though newcomers continued to arrive in Kirtland, the back door had now been opened and others were leaving. The growth of the Church became stagnant, and for a while it looked as though a stalemate was about the best that could be hoped for.
That is, until something truly incredible happened.
July 4, 1835, was an unusually eventful day in Kirtland. The talk all over town was about the Irishman who had arrived in the village the day before, and had now set up an exhibit of, of all things, four Egyptian mummies. It was spectacular! For a small price you could actually see and touch mysterious carvings, fragments of ancient writings, and even mummified human corpses, all of which had been on the earth since Bible times! The exhibit was extremely popular, and Mr. Chandler, the Irishman, did everything he could to accommodate the Saints during his stay.
The four mummies were probably the most colorful objects displayed, but several of the prominent brethren of the Church were even more intrigued by the scraps of ancient writings. In the Book of Mormon, they recalled, Mosiah had described a seer as "a man that can translate all records that are of ancient date" (Mosiah 8:13). Joseph, they knew, had been called of God as "Prophet, Seer, and Revelator" back when the Church was first organized. Joseph should be able to read and understand this writing! What a wonderful way of silencing his critics for good! Having been told of the Mormon leader's reputation of deciphering the ancient text of the Book of Mormon, Chandler was invited to show some of his Egyptian writings to Joseph, if he would care to learn their meaning. To this the Irishman happily consented.
Some of the writings were taken to Joseph Smith, who told Chandler that he could indeed translate them, though to do so properly would take some time. Joseph explained that a few of the figures were more immediately recognizable to him than the rest, possibly because of their similarity to the engravings on the gold plates. These he proceeded to interpret for Chandler, who thanked him profusely and even wrote down on a piece of paper for Joseph the following:
KIRTLAND, July 6, 1835
This is to make known to all who may be desirous, concerning the knowledge of Mr. Joseph Smith, Jun., in deciphering the ancient Egyptian hieroglyphic characters in my possession, which I have, in many eminent cities, showed to the most learned; and, from the information that I could ever learn, or meet with, I find that of Mr. Joseph Smith, Jun., to correspond in the most minute matters.
MICHAEL H. CHANDLER
Traveling with, and proprietor of, Egyptian mummies
This was just the sort of thing the brethren had been hoping for, and they were confident that this certificate would help to strengthen the Prophet's reputation and undo some of the harm that had occurred. On further reflection, however, it occurred to them to go a step farther. Pooling their resources, they raised $2400 to actually purchase Chandler's exhibit -- the writings, the mummies, everything -- which they then presented to Joseph. Now, surely, any who ventured to question the Prophet's God-given ability to translate ancient records would be able to see for themselves.
But even their wildest hopes could not have prepared these faithful brethren for what the newly acquired Egyptian writings turned out to be, as identified by their prophet. The astonishing discovery is best described by Joseph Smith himself, who later wrote of the incident:
". . . with W. W. Phelps and Oliver Cowdery as scribes, I commenced the translation of some of the characters or hieroglyphics, and much to our joy found that one of the rolls contained the writings of Abraham, another the writings of Joseph of Egypt, etc. -- a more full account of which will appear in its place, as I proceed to examine or unfold them. Truly we can say, the Lord is beginning to reveal the abundance of peace and truth."
The news sped like an electric shock through the community. All the Saints were beside themselves with joy over the fact that God should so preserve and direct these things unto them through his holy Prophet. The Church's local periodical printed a letter by Oliver Cowdery, one of Joseph's scribes in the work, in which he reported:
"Upon the subject of the Egyptian records, or rather the writings of Abraham and Joseph, I may say a few words. This record is beautifully written on papyrus with black, and a small part red ink, or paint, in perfect preservation."
Describing some of the artwork on the record identified as the Book of Joseph, he excitedly continued:
"The serpent, represented as walking, or formed in a manner to be able to walk, standing in front of and near a female figure, is to me one of the greatest representations I have ever seen upon paper, or a writing substance; and must go so far towards convincing the rational mind of the correctness and divine authority of the holy scriptures . . . as to carry away, with one mighty sweep, the whole atheistical fabric . . . Enoch's Pillar, as mentioned by Josephus, is upon the same roll . . ."
Translation of the papyri commenced almost at once, though not with the record of Joseph that had so impressed Cowdery. Instead, Joseph Smith turned to what would have been the more ancient record of Abraham. Day after day, as much as time would allow, the Prophet occupied himself with the ancient writings. Besides the translation manuscript, which grew steadily, Joseph also undertook the preparation of an alphabet and grammar of the Egyptian language. This was the first work of its kind in the world, since all knowledge of ancient Egyptian writing had been lost to mankind for centuries.
People were duly impressed with the translation project, and eventually a brother named Warren Parrish was called upon to assist Joseph full-time as his principle scribe, aiding the work of Phelps and Cowdery.
Scores of visitors, both Saints and gentiles alike, would call upon the Prophet to see for themselves these wondrous things. Joseph endeavored to give to all "a brief history of the manner in which the writings of the fathers, Abraham and Joseph, have been preserved, and how I came in possession of the same -- a correct translation of which I shall give," he promised, "in its proper place."
In the meantime, however, problems continued to plague the Church. During the next few years the Saints would experience some severe setbacks, including economic chaos brought on by the fall of the Church-sponsored Kirtland Safety Society bank, the resulting abandonment of the town of Kirtland, the apostasy and excommunication of the three witnesses to the Book of Mormon and other prominent brethren (including Joseph's scribe, Warren Parrish), the eventual expulsion of the Saints from the state of Missouri, and even the arrest and imprisonment of Joseph and several other Church leaders for treason.
Yet the Church would endure these things and more. And while there were doubtless a number of reasons why the Church survived adversity, the one common element was its credibility with its members, a credibility now bolstered for hard times ahead in large part by the miraculous existence of the Prophet's Egyptian records, and of his obviously God-given ability to understand and translate things hidden from the world.
If Joseph could decipher the Egyptian characters on the papyri, then surely he had been able to translate the writings on the golden plates of the Book of Mormon, just as he said he did. And if he had translated the Book of Mormon, he really was called of God as a true prophet. What more proof could a person ask?
The Book of Abraham: A Timely Document
The small ASSORTMENT OF brittle, faded papyri that Joseph had acquired strengthened his reputation as a prophet and translator at a time when such support was greatly needed; but the little work now known as the Book of Abraham was to have an even more far reaching effect upon the Church.
As published today, the Book of Abraham is a small work, containing only about fifteen printed pages (including the "facsimiles," or pictures adapted from the papyri, which accompany the text). It was apparently never completed, as it ends abruptly in the middle of the beginning sequences of the Garden of Eden story. Possibly Joseph was killed (June 1844) before the remainder could be produced; we cannot be certain. That he had intended to do more with the papyri at a later time seems likely, for the portion completed was the product of two separate, relatively brief but intense periods with an interruption of several years between them.1
From the beginning, Joseph revealed to his scribes that the papyrus record was an expanded version of the Genesis account of the life of Abraham as found in the Bible.2 It showed that Moses, in compiling the Pentateuch, had apparently relied upon the very same account which Joseph Smith now possessed. Moses evidently abridged and condensed the record as he wrote, omitting considerable detail. Either that, or the original writings of Moses had suffered the same ravages of time through careless and dishonest scribes thought to have affected the rest of the Bible.
But no matter. If Joseph was correct, the Church now had before it the very work from which Genesis had been derived; nothing less than the original, first-hand journal that had been kept by Father Abraham himself.3* And this account, now slowly unfolding as the Prophet labored to translate it -- first in Kirtland, later in Nauvoo -- not only cast new light on the background and experiences of the great biblical patriarch, it also gave scriptural authority to a number of new doctrines and teachings Joseph had recently introduced.
During the first phase of the translation process, which took place from the time he acquired the papyri in July 1835 to the latter part of the same year, Joseph was able to dictate approximately forty percent of what he would eventually produce. His scribes in Kirtland faithfully recorded the words as Joseph read them off, filling nearly ten full manuscript pages. The translated portion appeared neatly alongside a narrow column on the left side of the paper that displayed a hand-drawn copy of the Egyptian symbol from which Joseph derived the text.
The opening section of the Book of Abraham, which reads today through Abr. 2:18, gives Abraham's first person account of the conditions in his homeland, the idolatry and famine, which preceded his rescue by the Lord from an altar of sacrifice, and the subsequent command to depart from his homeland and go to a land which the Lord would show him. The account Joseph produced from the papyri greatly expands upon the Bible's version of the same events, to the extent that only a half-dozen or so corresponding Bible verses (Genesis 12:1-6) are detectable.
The sheer volume of this newly discovered Bible-related material was surely impressive enough to establish, once and for all, Joseph's continued favor with God. But to the joy of Joseph and the faithful, they noted that Abraham made repeated references to his lineal priesthood authority, which he referred to simply as the Priesthood. This was highly significant, for some within the Church had begun to criticize Joseph for introducing back in mid-1831 the office of "High Priest" within the Church. These dissenters argued that the whole matter of priesthood had always been a temporal affair, developed in the days of Moses and strictly confined to the Levites until the time of Christ, when it was abolished.4 These critics were the same people who had refused to accept as scripture some of the writings of Moses rewritten by Joseph in 1830 under the influence of direct revelation. In these, Joseph had argued that the Priesthood was an eternal power. In his attempts to reason with these dissidents, Smith pointed out the revelation contained in Doctrine and Covenants 27, which referred very plainly to the bestowal of the priesthood upon both himself and Oliver Cowdery in the spring of 1829. This, he argued, occurred long before there had been any question of authority. In response, his critics charged that the revelation had simply been altered more recently to include these teachings after they had already been put into practice.5
But the Book of Abraham changed all this, for it stated clearly that Abraham had held the Priesthood of God long before the Levites existed. And if any still cared to question the matter, the original manuscripts themselves were on display for all to see. The challenge had been met and answered. Both Joseph's status as a prophet and the doctrine of the priesthood authority within the Church had been vindicated by the timely appearance of the Book of Abraham.
Nor was this the only instance when Joseph was so vindicated, for Abraham's record continued in a most gratifying manner to justify the still newer doctrines of the Church when Joseph again took up the task of translating in early 1842. By this time the Saints, having been forcefully expelled from the state of Missouri, had settled in Illinois. There, on a peaceful bend in the Mississippi River, they began to build up a new city which they called Nauvoo; and there, at least for a season, it looked as though the Church would be left alone to take care of its own affairs. Then the Lord could reveal through the Prophet Joseph Smith the further light and knowledge he desired his people to have.
Most of these additional teachings were made public and were embraced by the membership as soon as they were revealed. However, some (and one very special teaching in particular) were of such a sacred nature that they could not be taught publicly, nor could their existence even be acknowledged, as the time had not yet come, their leaders said, when people could understand these new truths. The major new issue was polygamy -- the practice of a man having more than one wife at a time. Joseph said he had been commanded of the Lord to enter secretly into the practice of this principle at least as early as 1841, and possibly much earlier -- the surviving records are unclear. He had also been told to instruct certain select, faithful brethren around him in the same practice. But as might be expected, this presented a dilemma to the Prophet and the others who had been initiated. How were they to practice something secretly in order to be counted righteous of God, and at the same time be able, in honesty, to deny that they were practicing it? Joseph and many of the brethren were being forced into the position of having to deny publicly that polygamy was being taught and practiced in Nauvoo in order to prevent persecution from their gentile neighbors and dissent from uninitiated fellow Mormons.6
When translation of the Book of Abraham began again, the answer to this dilemma became obvious. The Bible described how Abraham, when he first entered Egypt, had deceived the Egyptians into thinking that Sarai, who was very beautiful to look upon, was his sister -- not his wife. He did this because he feared the Egyptians would kill him and take his wife (Genesis 12:11-13). This same incident was described in the papyri when Joseph began translating the second time, but with a significant change: according to the papyri version of the narrative it had actually been the Lord himself who had instructed Abraham to tell the Egyptians that Sarai was his sister (Abraham 2:22-25). This demonstrated that God sometimes justifies deceit in those instances when a righteous purpose is served.
But this was only the beginning. Following the episode concerning Abraham's wife and the Egyptians, the translation of the ancient record broke off from any semblance of paralleling the biblical sequence of events, and instead recounted an entirely new episode. In an elaborate vision, the Lord is described as instructing Abraham on the principles of astronomy, whereby the heavens are likened unto eternal progression, the pre-existence of spirits, and the governing of the Celestial Realms by Deity (Abraham 3:1-21).*
It provided insight into God's plan for organizing the earth and peopling it for a second estate by the spirits of mankind, gave further details of Lucifer's rebellion, and an account of a resulting war in Heaven over the issue of man's free agency (Abraham 3:22-28).
The Prophet was just beginning to teach many of these ideas in 1842, the period when the translation project was taken up again. Significantly, the parts of the Book of Abraham dealing with these concepts formed the basis for virtually all of Joseph's subsequent teachings about an area of doctrine known as the plan of progression, and the eventual exaltation of those men who would go on to become gods themselves in the Celestial Kingdom.
The final chapter of the Book of Abraham, also completed at this time, was a continuation of Abraham's vision. It appeared to Joseph and his scribes to correspond to -- and thus be the original source for -- the creation account found in the first two chapters of Genesis. Joseph had once (back in 1830) corrected, by inspiration, this same passage of biblical text, along with other portions of the Bible (producing what is known as the Joseph Smith Translation or the Inspired Version, of the Bible). But now, as they translated the Book of Abraham creation story, the Prophet and his scribes found that it contained some noteworthy and startling differences from both the Bible's account and Joseph Smith's earlier, inspired restoration. This only served to emphasize how significantly the original writings of Abraham (as they were now being translated by Smith) differed from the biblical version authored by Moses.
What were some of the significant differences? When the book of Genesis had been corrected by the Prophet the first time in 1830, the text he produced retained the Bible's (and Moses') emphasis that there is only one God. Joseph's 1842 translation of portions of the Book of Abraham, however, distinctly taught the plurality of gods -- a concept of deity Joseph had started teaching a few years earlier, but one which many Saints neither understood nor appreciated.7
The Book of Abraham also introduced the first and only scriptural basis for denying the priesthood to Blacks, the Church's official position until 1978. It described Pharaoh and the Egyptians as descendents of Ham and Canaan (the progenitors of the Negro race), and under the curse of Canaan and disqualified from the priesthood (Abraham 1:21-22, 26-27).
The entire text of the translation, together with woodcuts of the three facsimiles and their explanations, created a sensation when they appeared in print for the first time in Times and Seasons, a publication of the Mormon Church. The paper featured bi-weekly installments of the Book of Abraham text, starting in its March 1, 1842 issue. The value and impact of the Book of Abraham was recognized at once by the faithful, and Joseph continued to expound upon its contents in lectures, sermons, and other teachings for two full years, right up to the time of his death. For several years after Joseph and his brother Hyrum were killed by a mob at the Carthage, jail there was a period of confusion and contention among the Saints. Without Joseph to hold the Church together, these confrontations soon erupted into a series of permanent divisions over doctrines and leadership that would split the Saints forever.
Several dominant groups emerged, with varying numbers of followers.8 The majority of the Saints aligned themselves with the Apostles under the leadership of Brigham Young. These people tended to endorse the doctrines of the Priesthood, pre-existence, eternal progression, and the plurality of gods. They favored the principle of plural marriage once they were introduced to it, and they upheld the Book of Abraham as a vital revelation from God. Those who followed other leaders tended, with a few exceptions, either to reject, ignore, or modify these newer doctrines, and to cast the Book of Abraham into a state of limbo.
But to the followers of Brigham Young -- those who would eventually become the Utah-based Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints -- the value of the Book of Abraham was incalculable. It could never be laid aside without forfeiting some of that Church's most sacred and distinctive doctrines. It was published a second time in 1851 by the overseers of the branches of the LDS Church in England, appearing in pamphlet form as part of a small collection of writings entitled The Pearl of Great Price. This collection was later re-issued in a slightly edited form in Utah in 1878 under the same title. Two years later, in October of 1880, it was officially canonized by unanimous vote at a session of the Church's semiannual General Conference in Salt Lake City.
Maintaining the divine authority of the Book of Abraham is every bit as vital to the doctrines and theology of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints today as it was in the days of Joseph Smith, Brigham Young and their successors. As the late Apostle Bruce R. McConkie (one of the Church's most prolific scriptural spokesmen) so succinctly stated, the Book of Abraham:
. . . contains priceless information about the gospel, pre-existence, the nature of Deity, the creation, and priesthood -- information which is not otherwise available in any other revelation now extant.9
Charges and Rebuttals: The Challenge Begins
Nearly forty years were to pass from the time Joseph translated the Book of Abraham until it was officially recognized as sacred Scripture of the Church. However, during this period something occurred which neither Joseph nor any of his contemporaries could have foreseen. After many years of dedicated work on the Rosetta Stone and other sources, scholars were able to decipher the ancient Egyptian language. It was now possible to translate accurately Egyptian texts with virtually the same degree of comprehension as Greek or Latin texts.1
Initially, though, it did not appear likely that this new development would impact the Mormon Church or the Book of Abraham. Living in the shelter of their Great Basin kingdom, the Saints for much of the second half of the nineteenth-century were both physically and culturally isolated from the rest of the country. In spite of such developments as the introduction of the railroad and increased gentile enterprises and settlements in the region, the Saints lived in a rigidly structured state of near-total dependence on Church authority. Many of their teachings and practices (such as polygamy) only served to reinforce the barriers established between the Saints and their neighbors. For their part, the Saints trusted the word of the prophet and felt no particular need to vindicate his work to the rest of the world. And even if they had desired such vindication, Joseph's papyri collection was unavailable; it had passed into the hands of his widow, Emma, who refused to follow the leadership of Brigham Young, and had remained in Nauvoo.2 So, as far as the Utah Saints were concerned, the world could simply go its own way with its knowledge, and the Saints would go on their way with theirs. Except that the rest of the world was not to be quite so obliging.
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).
Understandably, they caused very little concern within the Church, if LDS officials were even aware of the book. However, the following year an English translation of Remy's work appeared, published in London under the title A Journey to Great Salt Lake City. Perhaps it was through this account that certain Church leaders first became aware of the results of Deveria's investigation, though no deliberate effort appears to have been made at that time to answer his charges. Possibly they felt criticisms raised by such an obscure work did not warrant a reply. Furthermore, the Saints could reason, if the scholarship of Christendom could not recognize and correct the corruptions in the text of its own Bible, how could anyone expect the "learned" to have even a faint understanding of the subject matter of the Book of Abraham?
But then, in 1873, a man by the name of T. B. H. Stenhouse wrote a book which brought Deveria's study back into the public eye again. The Rocky Mountain Saints: A Full and Complete History of the Mormons seemed to hit the market at just the right time to become a popular success. Published in New York and later issued in two editions in London, it finally presented -- at least to the gentile mind a serious challenge to the Book of Abraham. Many eyes turned to the Mormon Church to await an official response. Many no doubt hoped to catch the Church making a retraction of some of the more bizarre doctrines it had helped to formulate. Some critics, no doubt even went so far as to predict the eventual collapse of the entire Mormon system.
The response of the Church was to disappoint such critics, however. Back in the original Times and Seasons article of 1842, the text of the papyri translation had been preceded by the heading::
A Translation of some ancient Records that have fallen into our hands from the Catacombs of Egypt, purporting to be the writings of Abraham, while he was in Egypt, called the Book of Abraham, written by his own hand upon papyrus. THE BOOK OF ABRAHAM.
This same heading had been used in the (first) 1851 edition of The Pearl of Great Price, the source that had been available to the critics. But in 1878, when the second edition was being prepared for publication in Salt Lake City, Apostle Orson Pratt edited out the words "purporting to be" from the heading. This emphasized even more strongly the Church's position that the book was nothing less than the divinely translated record of Abraham, and not merely some pagan funeral text as the non-Mormon scholarly world was asserting.3
The following year (1879) George Reynolds, a president of the LDS Council of Seventy, wrote an article for the Church entitled, "The Book of Abraham: Its Authenticity Established as a Divine and Ancient Record." In it Reynolds suggested that the papyrus,
. . . had at least two (but more probably three) meanings, the one understood by the masses -- the other comprehended only by the initiated, the priesthood and others; which latter conveyed the true though hidden intent of the writer.*
The following year the Book of Abraham was officially recognized as scripture. The position of the Saints was firm: Deveria's 20-year-old conclusions were misleading and lacked the authority of Latter-day Saint enlightenment. This was, after all, the only real authority the Saints could properly recognize.
This was not to be the end of the matter, however. Though each passing decade tended to put Deveria's work further out of reach, it was included in Stenhouse's book when it was republished in 1900. Apparently in response, the Church once again voted on and sustained the latest edition of the Pearl of Great Price at its October 1902 Conference. At this rate the subject might well have continued to seesaw back and forth until one side grew too weary to respond.
At least that was how the Rt. Reverend Franklin S. Spalding, Episcopal Bishop of Utah, saw the situation in 1912. It was in that year that he decided to send copies of the three facsimiles from the Book of Abraham to some of the world's leading scholars of Egyptology, asking each for an independent assessment of Joseph Smith's interpretations..
The eight Egyptologists and Semitists who responded were unanimous in their scathing verdict: "Joseph Smith's interpretation of these cuts is a farrago of nonsense from beginning to end," came the report from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, which added that "five minutes study in an Egyptian gallery of any museum should be enough to convince any educated man of the clumsiness of the imposture;"4 ". . . difficult to deal seriously with Smith's impudent fraud," wrote another from Oxford, England. "Smith has turned the Goddess into a king and Osiris into Abraham."5 From Chicago, ". . . very clearly demonstrates that he (Joseph Smith) was totally unacquainted with the significance of these documents and absolutely ignorant of the simplest facts of Egyptian Writing and civilization."6 And from London, ". . . the attempts to guess a meaning are too absurd to be noticed. It may be safely said that there is not one single word that is true in these explanations."7
On and on the critiques went, giving the most comprehensive portrayal ever assembled of exactly what Joseph's papyri actually were: common Egyptian funerary texts. Spalding published the results of his survey as Joseph Smith, Jr. As a Translator, adding enough fuel to the fire to keep the controversy burning hot for many years to come. The New York Times featured a major expos?on the Book of Abraham in December of that year; other articles and pamphlets soon began to appear in print as well. The Church's response was quick and sharp: Charges simply not valid. Church spokesmen vehemently charged the scholars with using erroneous criteria. Their methods were faulty, their motives questionable. In 1913, Mormon writer John Henry Evans pointed out in an article in the Church-sanctioned Improvement Era, that less than one-seventh of the whole Book of Abraham was represented by the facsimile portion, and even that only as an accompaniment to the text. Evans argued that in order to give a fair test of Joseph's true ability to translate Egyptian, and before the scholars could get away with charging that the entire Book of Abraham was a false translation, "they would have to examine the original papyrus, or a copy of it, from which the Book of Abraham was translated."8
B. H. Roberts, the well-known Church historian, took special exception in the same magazine to remarks quoted in the Times article by Dr. Albert Lythgoe, head of the Department of Egyptian Art at the New York Metropolitan Museum. Dr. Lythgoe had suggested that the scene Joseph interpreted as a "wicked priest attempting to sacrifice Abraham upon an altar" was a false reconstruction, because "the god Anubus, bending over the mummy, was shown with a human and strangely un-Egyptian head, instead of a jackal's head usual to the scene. And a knife had been drawn into the god's hand"9 (see Facsimile No. 1 on p. 33). Dr. Lythgoe's observations were virtually identical to those Deveria made a half-century earlier. Deveria had also noted that the bird in the picture, to correctly represent the soul of Osiris, "should have a human head."
". . . should have a human head,'" wrote Roberts caustically about both critics. "Yes, or the head of an ass, then it could be made to mean something else than what these other learned men describe it as meaning . . . 'should have a jackal's head.' Yes, or some other change might be suggested, and by such process some other meaning may be read into the plate and make it different from the translation of Joseph Smith."100
Such strongly worded pronouncements from respected Church authorities would, under most circumstances, have been sufficient to erase doubt from the minds of even the most wavering Saint, and adequate to frustrate the arguments of the most adamant critics. But this was far from an ordinary situation. In reality, the Church's best arguments not only looked and sounded ridiculous to the gentiles -- hardly a tenable position for a missionary-minded church -- but a surprising number of members seemed to recognize the sad fact that even the best minds in the Church were simply unable to respond credibly to the charges of scholarly professionals.
The Church was openly vulnerable, and the frustration that accompanied that vulnerability led its leaders to do something they had never done before: they sought the services of a hired, professional "expert."11
This man of the hour was known simply as Robert C. Webb. As it happened, "Webb" was an assumed name belonging to a professional writer, defender of causes, and self-styled expert on numerous matters. (Once, under a different name, he had even written a book in defense of the liquor industry!) However, his background and credentials seemed to be unimportant to Church officials. What was important was his willingness and ability to defend the Church's position on the Book of Abraham -- that, and the fact that he would be doing so as a gentile.
Webb's scholarly-sounding articles began appearing in Church publications in 1913. He also wrote a small book on the subject entitled, The Case Against Mormonism. Promoted as a definitive work by a "non-Mormon" author, Webb's book was anything but a case against Mormonism. Rather, it consisted of an impressive display of argumentation, and enough linguistic pseudo-scholarship to baffle the layman --apparently Webb's intention. It made no difference that the best "experts" criticized and ridiculed his writings as "full of errors," "its own refutation," and "ridiculous." The always innovative Webb had by this time tacked a bogus Ph.D. onto his name,12 thus becoming -- at least in the eyes of the Church officials who were willing to pay him for his writing -- one of the "experts" himself.
Webb remained a shadowy "expert" at the Church's disposal for many years, his little book dusted off and appealed to whenever occasion required the strengthening of a member's testimony or the refuting of an antagonist's criticism. Decades later, when researcher and author Fawn M. Brodie revealed that Webb's real name had been J. E. Homans, and that he had never earned a Ph. D. in Egyptology or any other field, few people seemed to care. "Webb" had served his purpose during the time he was needed most, and in the meantime Spalding's report had become as outdated to the current generation as Deveria's was in Spaulding's day.
The main LDS argument used throughout the controversy still stood: The facsimiles could "remind" the scholars of anything they wished, but no legitimate grounds existed to judge Joseph Smith's work, since none of the critics had ever had the Prophet's original papyri to examine. And that fact was not likely to change either, since the papyri collection had disappeared long ago, and was presumed destroyed in the great Chicago fire.13 Without them, no test would ever be valid. But Joseph Smith's original papyri had not been destroyed. Lost, yes -- but not forever. They were one day to reappear.
The Papyri Rediscovered: A Timely Opportunity?
One day in the early spring of 1966, a professor of Arabic Studies from the University of Utah in Salt Lake City entered one of the vault rooms of New York's huge Metropolitan Museum of Art, seeking supplementary material for a book he was writing.
"I was in one of the dim rooms where everything was brought to me," Dr. Aziz S. Atiya would later recollect. "Something caught my eye, and I asked one of the assistants to take me behind the bars, into the storehouse of documents, so that I could look some more." Dr. Atiya soon located a file that contained an apparently forgotten collection of Egyptian Papyri -- eleven tattered pieces, to be exact -- which had been glued to stiff backing paper in the nineteenth-century in an effort to preserve them.
The crude preservation efforts had been remarkably successful. Nearly all the papyri contained beautifully clear and legible writing - mostly in black, with a small part in red -- and many contained illustrations as well. But the vivid scene depicted on one fragment in particular was strikingly familiar to Professor Atiya, who, though not a Mormon himself, was well acquainted with the collection of various writings his LDS friends and associates revered as scripture. "When I saw this picture," Atiya would later explain to them," I knew it had appeared in the Pearl of Great Price."1
Thus began an extraordinary series of events which led, a year-and-a-half later, to what one prominent Mormon scholar has termed the most momentous transaction for the Church since the Angel Moroni retrieved from Joseph Smith the golden plates of the Book of Mormon.2 On November 27, 1967, the Salt Lake City Deseret News announced:
NEW YORK -- A collection of papyrus manuscripts, long believed to have been destroyed in the Chicago fire of 1871 was presented to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints here Monday by the Metropolitan Museum of Art . . . Included in the papyri is a manuscript identified as the original document from which Joseph Smith had copied the drawing which he called "Facsimile No. 1" [see photograph on p. 33] and published with the Book of Abraham..
This startling news produced more than mere excitement within the Church. The sudden, unexpected reappearance of so large a portion of Joseph Smith's original papyrus collection caused feelings that could only be compared with those of the earlier Saints who had seen them that first time in Kirtland over a hundred and thirty years earlier.
And there could be no question that the Metropolitan papyri were indeed none other than the ones which Joseph Smith had once purchased and used. The reverse sides of the paper to which they were glued contained such things as architectural drawings of a temple and maps of the Kirtland, Ohio area.3
Several of the fragments contained Egyptian drawings, and while there was no sign among them of two of the facsimiles from the Book of Abraham, the original of Facsimile No. 1 stood out like a blazing banner. Two other fragments contained drawings that seemed to match perfectly Oliver Cowdery's descriptions of pictures in the Book of Joseph scroll. However, no one could be sure whether the Prophet had done more than simply identify that book during those last, hectic years of his life. In all, it was determined that about one-third of the entire papyrus collection once owned by Joseph Smith had been discovered in this dramatic find.4
Church members saw in this development a growing number of opportunities that could only have been foreordained of God. For one thing, the scholarly criticisms by Spaulding and others of Joseph's explanation of Facsimile No. 1 could now be reviewed in light of modern scholarship and using the original document, and the Church would be able to prove, once and for all, that the arguments of the critics were faulty. In short, this discovery held out the possibility of dramatically vindicating before the world Joseph Smith's original identification of Facsimile No. 1 (along with the rest of the Book of Abraham and all the doctrines it represented).
There was also the tantalizing prospect of being able to demonstrate one of the Church's greatest gifts in the Latter-day dispensation: the gift of a Seer, the ability to translate by the gift and power of God just as Joseph Smith had done. As far back as 1878 Orson Pratt had seen fit to challenge the world on this subject, declaring in one of his sermons: "Have any of the other denominations got this gift among them? Go and inquire through all of Christendom . . . 'Can you translate ancient records written in a language that is lost to the knowledge of man?' No . . . the universal reply of the Christian denominations, numbering some 400,000,000, would be that they have not the power to do it . . . you must give us credit," he had chided, "of at least professing to have these great and important gifts."5
Nor was Apostle Pratt's point taken lightly by others in the Church; several decades later another Apostle, John A. Widtsoe, pointedly explained that if "records appear needing translation, the President of the Church may at any time be called, through revelation, to the special labor of translation."6
And if ever there was a time when there were records needing translation, the Saints could reason, surely it was now -- for who but Heavenly Father could have orchestrated such a glorious opportunity? And if these fragments turned out to contain any of the original Book of Abraham -- well, who then could deny the truthfulness of the Restored Gospel??
There was an unfortunate complication within the Church at this time, however. The President of the Church at the time the papyri were rediscovered, David O. MacKay, was very old and had been ill for some time. He was simply in no condition to undertake such a calling to translate, no matter how divinely propitious or urgent. Though much of the membership understood the President's Counselors in the First Presidency to hold collectively all the necessary keys and authority to perform the duties of Seer to the Church,7 the papyri were nevertheless turned over to some of the Church's top scholars at Brigham Young University in Provo, for evaluation and translation.
But while many Mormons were doubtless disappointed that the Church passed up this opportunity, such feelings were quickly brushed aside in anticipation of future developments. Would the arguments of the critics be overcome and silenced at last? Would Joseph's work finally be justified with devastating finality before the eyes of a skeptical world?
The Saints waited expectantly, and held their breath.