Examining the Book of Abraham
Anyone who spends much time on the "Mormon Internet" — be it on faithful LDS sites like Nauvoo.com or downright "anti-" sites like Recovery from Mormonism (exmormon.org) — is bound to come across certain references to criticisms of the Book of Abraham, which is located in the LDS canon called the Pearl of Great Price.
Generally speaking, few Latter-day Saints know much about the origins of the Book of Abraham or its contents. Few have even read this short book of LDS scripture which is only five chapters long. And almost no one, outside of the few who get involved in internet discussions or in scholarly discussions, have any inkling that a controversy is currently raging between the defenders of the book and its critics — a controversy which began over 100 years ago!
It's interesting to note the diverse reactions people have had toward this curious little book throughout its history. In the beginning of its life, it seems to have been very faith-promoting, and was the basis from which several new doctrines and policies emerged — ideas that shaped LDS cosmology, and were the basis of such practices as the controversial policy of withholding priesthood ordination to anyone of African descent (which ended in 1978).
Currently, however, the Book of Abraham is gaining a reputation of being one of the primary "testimony-destroyers" of the LDS Church. Anecdotal as this is, I've noticed that every time one of the various disaffected-Mormon bulletin boards creates a poll asking their members to identify the reasons for their disaffection, it seems that the distinct majority of the men list the Book of Abraham as the primary reason their testimony in the Church evaporated. (Interestingly, it doesn't seem to be quite as important to the women of these forums, who often list the circumstances and doctrines surrounding the practice of Polygamy/Polyandry as their biggest concern.)
Why should this be all of a sudden? How does a book go from being faith-promoting in the beginning of its life, to becoming faith-destroying 150 years later?
That's what this essay is about. It is a summary of the critics' view of the Book of Abraham. Even though there are several books that do this nicely1, I've noticed that there aren't many good, detailed summaries on the internet that people can browse through. There are many sites that list a few points here or there, but not a comprehensive look at the critic's perspective. I hope this essay can help fill that void.
So, without further delay, let's start at the beginning.
A Brief History
In the early 19th century, an antiquities dealer named Antonio Lebolo raided a number of Egyptian tombs around Thebes. Among the spoils that he brought back to Italy were eleven mummies. After Lebolo's death, his family sent the mummies to a shipping company to be sold at auction. Michael Chandler was the eventual recipient.
Historically, it's usually been assumed that Chandler was the one who bought the mummies at this auction and was the one who took them on tour through America, stopping at communities along the way, setting up an exhibit, and charging the residents a small fee to see it. For a recent example of this assumption, see John Gee's book, A Guide To The Joseph Smith Papyri, published by FARMS (Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies).
However, very recent scholarship may be challenging that assumption. Researcher Brian L. Smith has painstakingly researched the path Lebolo's mummies took after entering America. He has found dozens of newspaper ads advertising the exhibit in many parts of the country, such as this ad found in the Lancaster Journal in Pennsylvania, August 30, 1833:
Interestingly, even though plenty of evidence of the mummy exhibit has been found, Brian Smith has not been able to find any evidence of Chandler traveling with the exhibit until Cleveland, and then shortly afterwards in Kirtland.2
In any case, regardless of who had the mummies prior to Kirtland, it is of no question that it was Michael Chandler who brought the mummy exhibit to the Saints there in July 1835. As evidenced by the reduction of the number of mummies in the display throughout the previous 2 years, part of the goal of the exhibit's owner(s) was probably to eventually sell the mummies off. By the time Chandler reached Kirtland, there were only four mummies left.
As a matter of background, for the reader who may be unfamiliar with LDS Church history up to this point, Joseph Smith had published the Book of Mormon five years prior to this and claimed that the book was a translation of gold plates that he had unearthed, under the direction of God, Jesus Christ, and a certain angel named Moroni. The writing on these gold plates were purported to be a heretofore unknown script called "Reformed Egyptian".
Perhaps Chandler was curious to see if Joseph Smith could translate the writing of his ancient Egyptian papyri, or maybe, as the proprietor of a traveling curiosity, he figured that Egyptian artifacts would be of interest to the Saints in Kirtland, and could generate plenty of on-lookers at 25 cents a piece. Whatever Chandler's motivation for traveling to Kirtland, here is how the History of the Church (2:235) describes his visit and the exhibit itself:
Subsequent to Joseph viewing and commenting on the papyri, some of the elders purchased Chandler's entire exhibit for $2400 — a very large sum in those days.4
The History of the Church continues (2:236):
"...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."5
Soon afterward, Joseph began his translation in earnest. The first thing he did was to prepare an alphabet and grammar of the Egyptian language. For those who wish to study his "alphabet and grammar" further, please see Joseph Smith's Egyptian Alphabet and Grammar, published by Utah Lighthouse Ministries, or The Joseph Smith Egyptian Papers, by H. Michael Marquardt. Both books contain copies from microfilm of Joseph Smith's original book which is currently located in the LDS Church's archives.
Several times in his journal, Joseph mentions various activities surrounding the translation and artifacts:
Other first-hand accounts include both Charles Francis Adams, a member of the Massachusetts legislature and son of John Quincy Adams, and his travelling companion Josiah Quincy, who would become the mayor of Boston the following year.
Adams quoted Smith as pointing to a symbol on one of the pieces of papyri and saying, "This...was written by the hand of Abraham and means so and so. If anyone denies it, let him prove the contrary. I say it."7 Quincy reported Smith as saying, "That is the handwriting of Abraham, the Father of the Faithful."8
The papyri caused quite a stir in the community, and the saints looked forward to the publishing of Joseph's translation. Eventually, the text that we know today as The Book of Abraham was printed in the "Times and Seasons" (beginning with the March 1, 1842 issue).
In 1851, Franklin D. Richards, who was presiding over the mission in England, compiled two texts — the Book of Moses and the Book of Abraham — into one volume he called "The Pearl of Great Price" for the benefit of the members there. As these English saints began immigrating to Salt Lake City, they brought this volume with them, and eventually, on October 10, 1880, the First Presidency canonized the Pearl of Great Price and included it into the standard works.
From then until now, it has been accepted by the Church as a literal translation of a document "written by [Abraham's] own hand, upon papyrus" while he was in Egypt. If true, this would make the Book of Abraham immensely important — not just doctrinally, but historically. We don't know exactly when Abraham lived, but scholars have narrowed the time to probably between 2200 BCE and 1500 BCE (the LDS Bible Dictionary lists Abraham's birth as 1996 BCE — see "Chronology" on page 636 of the Church's current edition of the Bible). Even if we assume the latter date (1500 BCE), the manuscript that fell into Joseph's hands would have been a remarkable find. No other Biblical manuscript that scholars currently have — including any book in the Old Testament — is nearly that old. The Book of Abraham would pre-date any extant scriptural manuscript by hundreds, or even as much as a thousand, years.9
So what happened to the original papyri fragments and the mummies? They stayed with Joseph's mother Lucy Mack Smith until her death. After Lucy Smith's passing, Emma, who by this time was married to a Mr. Bidemon, soon sold the whole package — papyri and mummies — where they ended up in the Wood Museum in Chicago. Eventually, the whole display was presumed destroyed in the great Chicago fire of 1871.10
1. Perhaps the most popular book right now that is critical of the Book of Abraham is a book written by Charles Larson called ...By His Own Hands Upon Papyrus. If you are LDS, the Institute for Religious Research will give you a free copy of this book, which you can request at this link. You can even download a free copy of the book (without the pictures) at the above link, as well. - Go back to article
2. Mystery of the Mummies: An Update on the Joseph Smith Collection, Interview with Brian L. Smith by Philip R. Webb, BYU's Religious Studies Center Newsletter, Volume 20 Number 2, 2005.
Here is a small quote from the article by Smith:
3. History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, ed. B. H. Roberts, fifth printing, volume 2, p. 235 - Go back to article
4. ...By His Own Hand Upon Papyrus, by Charles M. Larson, p. 14 - Go back to article
5. History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, ed. B. H. Roberts, fifth printing, volume 2, p. 236 - Go back to article
6. See the above journal entries in An American Prophet's Record: The Diaries and Journals of Joseph Smith, ed. Scott H. Faulring, publ. Signature Books - Go back to article
7. Henry Adams, "Charles Francis Adams Visits the Mormons in 1844," Proceedings of the Massachusetts Historical Society 68 (1952); also Quest for the Gold Plates: Thomas Stuart Ferguson's Archeological Search for The Book of Mormon, by Stan Larson, p. 95 - Go Back to article
8. Josiah Quincy, "Figures of the Past from the Leaves of Old Journals" (Boston: Roberts Brothers, 1883), also Quest for the Gold Plates: Thomas Stuart Ferguson's Archeological Search for The Book of Mormon, by Stan Larson, p. 95 - Go Back to Article
9. For an easy-to-read summary of the dating of the Old Testament books, see Who Wrote The Bible?, by Richard Elliott Freidman, publ. Harper Collins - Go Back to Article
10. A Guide To The Joseph Smith Papyri, by John Gee, publ. F.A.R.M.S., p. 9 - Go Back to Article