Examining the Book of Abraham
The Difficulties Begin
If you will remember, at the time Joseph Smith obtained the papyri (July 1835), no one knew how to read the Egyptian language except Champollion — and he had passed away in 1832, leaving his work unpublished and virtually unknown. In fact, Champollion's very first volume regarding the language wasn't published until 5 months after the papyri's purchase.1 Also, the publications were not written for the general population, but were circulated primarily among professional linguists for many years to come.
As a side note, this makes Michael Chandler's written testimony about Joseph's preliminary interpretations of the hieroglyphs corresponding "in the most minute matters" with the "most learned" a bit specious.
- Point #1: I'm sure Mr. Chandler talked to a number of scholars throughout his travels in America. But these scholars truly knew nothing about ancient Egyptian writing. Nobody in the entire world could read the writing other than Champollion. So, to say that Joseph's interpretations corresponded with theirs "in the most minute details" is to say that Joseph's guess was as good as their's. Since each scholar trying to crack the language had his own ideas on the subject and his own ways of doing things, Chandler probably had as many "details" as there were scholars he talked to.
- Point #2: Chandler, no doubt, was trying to sell part or all of his exhibit, as the exhibit had been sold off in pieces for the past two years. Even though he apparently wrote out his little affidavit in favor of Joseph's interpretations prior to negotiating the sale with the brethren of Kirtland, he was a salesman. He probably could sense the excitement surrounding the exhibit and the excitement regarding Joseph's comments of the papyri. I'm sure he sensed that a sale was possible during his stay there.
- Conclusion: Chandler's testimony of Joseph Smith's ability to read hieroglyphs is moot. He, personally, had no expert knowledge with which to compare Joseph's readings, nor could he compare Joseph's readings with any other expert, as there wasn't a qualified expert in the entire American Continent at that time.
Continuing on, we jump to the year 1856, which was about five years after the Pearl of Great Price was printed in England. One of the pamphlets, which included the Book of Abraham's facsimiles and Joseph's accompanying explanations, made its way to the Louvre in Paris where it subsequently found itself in the hands of M. Theodule Deveria, a pioneer in the field of Egyptology.
Deveria apparently recognized both Facsimile #1 and Facsimile #3 as common funerary scenes of which he had studied hundreds. He was even able to recognize some of the symbols, and determined that these documents were prepared for a deceased man named Horus (who is later identified as Hôr).2
This news circulated around a little bit, but didn't really reach the Saints in Utah until years later. Even then, the news didn't have much impact on the saints, other than causing the Church to make one small change in the heading of the second edition of the Book of Abraham (as yet un-canonized). Up until then, the heading had read, "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." (emphasis added)
After Deveria's statements reached Utah, the brethren apparently wished to emphasize their position more forcefully that this was an actual holograph written by Abraham's own hand. So, they tossed out the phrase "purporting to be" in the heading, and subsequently canonized the Book of Abraham. From that day to the present, the heading has read, "A Translation of some ancient Records, that have fallen into our hands from the catacombs of Egypt, — The writings of Abraham while he was in Egypt, called the Book of Abraham, written by his own hand, upon papyrus."
As time went on, there were occasional skirmishes between the Latter-day Saints and the gentile world that dredged up Deveria's statements, but as the decades passed, those statements seemed to lose much of the potency that they once may have had. Or so thought the Rt. Reverend Franklin S. Spaulding, an Episcopal Bishop of Utah, in 1912. That was the year he sent copies of the three facsimiles from the Book of Abraham to some of the world's leading scholars of Egyptology, asking each of them for an assessment of Joseph Smith's interpretations. Their assessments were subsequently published by Spaulding in a pamphlet entitled, "Joseph Smith Jr., As a Translator".
In order to save space, I'll provide just an excerpt from each of the scholars' assessments (however if you'd like to read Rev. Spaulding's entire pamphlet, click here):
"It is difficult to deal seriously with Joseph Smith's impudent fraud. His fac-simile from the Book of Abraham No. 2 is an ordinary hypocephalus... Number 3 is a representation of the Goddess Maat leading the Pharaoh before Osiris, behind whom stands the Goddess Isis. Smith has turned the Goddess into a king and Osiris into Abraham..."
* * * * * * *
Dr. A.H. Sayce, Oxford, England3
"I have examined the illustrations given in the 'Pearl of Great Price.' In the first place, they are copies...of well known Egyptian subjects of which I have dozens of examples.
"Secondly, they are all many centuries later than Abraham. On Number 2, I think there is — so far as the copy shows it — the name of Shishak, a popular name in Egypt from about 950 to 750 B.C., and such seems to be about the date of the other figures.
"Third, as to the real meaning of them:
"Number 1 is the well known scene of Anubis preparing the body of the dead man:
"1. Is the hawk of Horus
"2. Is the dead person.
"3. Is Anubis.
"4. Is the usual funeral couch.
"5, 6, 7, 8 are the regular jars for embalming the parts of the body, with the head of a hawk, jackal, ape and man, of which dozens may be seen in the museums.
"10. Are the funeral offerings covered with lotus flowers.
"Number 2 is one of the usual discs with magic inscriptions placed beneath the head of the dead. [...] These figures are well known ones in Egyptian mythology.
"Number 3 is the very common scene of the dead person before the judgment seat of Osiris, which occurs in most copies of the funeral papyri:
"1. Is Osiris in the usual form.
"2. Is Isis behind him.
"3. Is the stand of offerings with lotus flowers.
"4. Is the Goddess ... Maat...
"5. Is the dead person.
"6. Is the God Anubis, the conductor of the souls of the dead.
"To any one with knowledge of the large class of funeral documents to which these belong, the attempts to guess a meaning for them, in the professed explanations, are too absurd to be noticed. It may be safely said that there is not one single word that is true in these explanations.
"...None but the ignorant could possibly be imposed on by such ludicrous blunders..."
* * * * * * *
Dr. W.M. Flinders Petrie, London University.4
"[...] The point I wish to bring out is that the three fac-similes from the 'Book of Abraham' were associated with mummies. This fact is in complete harmony with the further fact that the three fac-similes are part of the usual equipment of the dead in the later period of Egyptian civilization before the Christian era. The three fac-similes in question represent equipment which will be and has been found in unnumbered thousands of Egyptian graves. In accepting them, then, as parts of the 'Book of Abraham,' let it be understood that they were in universal use among the pagan Egyptians... In accepting these fac-similes as part of the 'Book of Abraham' it remains then for any one who so accepts them to explain why they were thus universally employed by a people who knew nothing of Abraham's God or Abraham's religion. The point, then, is that in publishing these fac-similes of Egyptian documents as part of an unique revelation to Abraham, Joseph Smith was attributing to Abraham a series of documents which were the common property of a whole nation of people who employed them in every human burial, which they prepared.
"Taking up these fac-similes now, let us discuss them in order. Number 1 depicts a figure reclining on a couch, with a priest officiating and four jars beneath the couch... The jars below, closed with lids carved in the forms of animal heads, were used by the Egyptians to contain the visera taken from the body of the dead man. This scene is depicted on Egyptian funeral papyri, on coffins and on late temple walls, unnumbered thousands of times...
"Fac-simile Number 2...is commonly called among Egyptologists a hypocephalus. It was placed under the head of the mummy and the various representations upon it were of a magical power designed to assist the deceased in various ways... They did not appear in any Egyptian burials until over a thousand years after the time of Abraham. They were unknown in Egypt in Abraham's day.
"Fac-simile Number 3: This scene depicts the god Osiris enthroned at the left, with a goddess, probably Isis, behind him and before him three figures. The middle one, a man, led into the presence of Osiris by the goddess Truth... accompanied by a figure represented in black, the head of which probably should be that of a wolf or a jackal, but which is here badly drawn. A lotus-crowned standard (number 3) bearing food, stands as usual before Osiris. This is the judgment scene, in which the dead man, led in by Truth, is to be judged by Osiris. This scene again is depicted innumerable times in the funeral papyri, coffins and tomb and temple walls of Egypt. No representation of it thus far found in Egypt, though we have thousands of them, dates earlier than 500 years after Abraham's age; and it may be stated as certain that the scene was unknown until about 500 years after Abraham's day.
"To sum up, then, these three fac-similes of Egyptian documents in the 'Pearl of Great Price' depict the most common objects in the mortuary religion of Egypt..."
* * * * * * *
James H. Breasted, Ph.D., Haskell Oriental
Museum, University of Chicago.5
"...The 'Book of Abraham,' it is hardly necessary to say, is a pure fabrication. Cuts 1 and 3 are inaccurate copies of well known scenes on funeral papyri, and cut 2 is a copy of one of the magical discs which in the late Egyptian period were placed under the heads of mummies... Joseph Smith's interpretation of these cuts is a farrago of nonsense from beginning to end... Five minutes' study in an Egyptian gallery of any museum should be enough to convince any educated man of the clumsiness of the imposture."
* * * * * * *
Dr. Arthur C. Mace, Assistant Curator,
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Department of Egyptian Art.6
"[...] Apparently, the plate on page 50 [it seems he was looking at Facsimile 1] represents an embalmer preparing a body for burial... Under the bed on which the body lies are the canopic jars to hold the organs and entrails removed from the body in the process of embalming...
"[...] The text of this chapter, as also the interpretation of the plates, displays an amusing ignorance. Chaldeans and Egyptians are hopelessly mixed together, although as dissimilar and remote in language, religion and locality as are today American and Chinese. In addition to which the writer knows nothing of either of them."
Dr. John Peters, University of Pennsylvania.
In charge of expedition to Babylonia, 1888 - 1895.7
"After examining 'The Pearl of Great Price,' by Joseph Smith..., I am convinced that the following are facts:
"1. That the author of the notes on the three facsimiles had before him Egyptian inscriptions... Compare, for example, No. 2 with the facsimiles of similar hypocephali in W.M.F. Petrie's Abydos, Pt. 1, 1902, Plate LXXVI, LXXVII and LXXIX, in which are sections exactly corresponding to sections in this facsimile (No. 2).
"2. That the author either knew Hebrew or had some means of arriving at, at least, an elementary knowledge of that language...
"3. That the author knew neither the Egyptian language nor the meaning of the most commonplace Egyptian figures; neither did any of those, whether human or Divine, who may have helped him in his interpretation, have any such knowledge. By comparing his notes on fac-similes Nos. 1, 2 and 3 with any elementary book on Egyptian language and religion, and especially by comparing the notes on No. 2 with the explanation of the above named plate on page 49ff. of the work of Petrie already named..., this becomes unquestionably evident.
"In general, it may be remarked that his explanations from a scientific and scholarly standpoint are absurd... If Abraham wrote anything while he was in Egypt, it would most likely have been written in the Cuneiform, as that was the langua franca of his day and his own native language.
"...the explanatory notes to his fac-similes cannot be taken seriously by any scholar, as they seem to be undoubtedly the work of pure imagination."
* * * * * * *
Rev. Prof. C.A.B. Mercer, Ph.D.,
Western Theological Seminary,
Custodian Hibbard Collection,
"The Egyptian papyrus which Smith declared to be the 'Book of Abraham,' and 'translated,' or explained in his fantastical way, and of which three specimens are published in the 'Pearl of Great Price,' are parts of the well known 'Book of the Dead.' Although the reproductions are very bad, one can easily recognize familiar scenes from this book: 'the body of the dead lying a ba' (bier). The canopic jars containing the entrails under it; the soul in the shape of a bird flying above it, and a priest approaching it, or Osiris seated on his throne, Isis behind him, the Goddess of Righteousness with the feather on her head awaiting the deceased from the throne of Osiris."
* * * * * * *
Dr. Edward Meyer, University of Berlin.9
"I have been interested since a long time in the Mormons and Joseph Smith's supposed translations of Egyptian texts. A careful study has convinced me that Smith probably believed seriously to have deciphered the ancient hieroglyphics, but that he utterly failed.
"What he calls the 'Book of Abraham' is a funeral Egyptian text, probably not older than the Greek ages. His figure 1 should be commented upon as follows:
"The dead man (1) is lying on a bier (4) under which are standing the four canopic jars (5-8) and before which is standing the offering table (10). The soul is leaving the body in the moment when the priest (3) is opening the body with a knife for mummification. Fig. 3 may be part of the same papyrus — the Goddess Maat (Truth) is introducing the dead (5) and his shadow (6) before Osiris (1) and Isis (2) before whom an offering table stands (3).
"Fig. 2 is copied from a hypocephalus of the ancient Egyptians... None of the names mentioned by Smith can be found in the text, and he has misinterpreted the signification of every one figure: Fig. 5 is the divine cow of Hathor, 6 are the four children of Horus as the Canopic Gods, 4 is the God Sokar in the Sacred Book, etc.
Dr. Friedrich Freiheer von Bissing, [sic]
Professor of Egyptology in the University of Munich.10
After Rev. Spaulding published the above statements on the facsimiles of the Book of Abraham, a big controversy ensued, with much being said on both sides of the issue. Interestingly, one of the things that led to confusion in the debate was a certain Robert C. Webb, Ph.D. Dr. "Webb" was actually a professional writer who would defend anyone's cause for a price. Some church member(s) had apparently hired Dr. "Webb" (whose real name was J.E. Homans — with no Ph.D.!)11 to use his talents of argument and obfuscation to help fight their battles in these sometimes heated disputes.
Mr. Homans, aka "Dr. Webb", wrote numerous scholarly-sounding articles defending the Church's position on the Book of Abraham that began appearing in Church publications in 1913, and soon even wrote a book on the subject entitled "The Case Against Mormonism," which was, of course, a treatise in favor of the Church. No real expert in Egyptology actually took the book seriously — calling it "ridiculous" and "its own refutation" — but it included enough pseudo-scholarship to baffle the layman Latter-day Saint, and this seemed to provide the necessary comfort that there was at least one "expert" on their side.
The controversy eventually wound down to a stalemate: on the one hand, there were the Egyptologists and other scholars who maintained that these facsimiles were pictures from the ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead, while on the other hand, defenders such as B.H. Roberts and "Dr. Webb" insisted that while these facsimiles may "remind" these experts of certain familiar scenes they've seen before, definitive proof couldn't be had until everyone could examine the original papyrus that Joseph Smith had in his hands. And that, unfortunately, was impossible due to the Chicago fire many decades ago.
And that is where the debate stood until 1967.
**** Footnotes ****
1. Joseph Smith, et. al. purchased the papyri in July 1835. Champolleon's first volume dealing with the deciphering of ancient Egyptian writing was published posthumously on what would have been his 45th birthday — 23 December 1835. The subsequent volumes were published over the next five years — 1836 - 1841. - Go back to article
2. Deveria's statements were first published by Jules Remy in 1860, in Voyage au Pays des Mormons, and, in 1861, by Jules Remy and Julius Brenchley, in A Journey to Great Salt Lake City, pp. 540-546. Deveria's comments were reprinted in Paris in 1896, under the title, "Fragments de Manuscrits Funeraires Egyptians Consideres par les Mormons Comme les Memoires Autographes d'Abraham," in Vol. 1, pp. 195-207, of Gaston Maspero's Theodule Deveria: Memoirs et Fragments - Go back to article
3. Joseph Smith As Translator: An Inquiry Conducted by Rt. Reverend F.S. Spalding, D.D., Bishop of Utah, p. 23 - Go back to article
4. Joseph Smith As Translator: An Inquiry Conducted by Rt. Reverend F.S. Spalding, D.D., Bishop of Utah, pp. 23-24 - Go back to article
5. Joseph Smith As Translator: An Inquiry Conducted by Rt. Reverend F.S. Spalding, D.D., Bishop of Utah, pp. 25-27 - Go back to article
6. Joseph Smith As Translator: An Inquiry Conducted by Rt. Reverend F.S. Spalding, D.D., Bishop of Utah, p. 27 - Go back to article
7. Joseph Smith As Translator: An Inquiry Conducted by Rt. Reverend F.S. Spalding, D.D., Bishop of Utah, p. 28 - Go back to article
8. Joseph Smith As Translator: An Inquiry Conducted by Rt. Reverend F.S. Spalding, D.D., Bishop of Utah, pp. 28-29 - Go back to article
9. Joseph Smith As Translator: An Inquiry Conducted by Rt. Reverend F.S. Spalding, D.D., Bishop of Utah, pp. 29-30 - Go back to article
10. Joseph Smith As Translator: An Inquiry Conducted by Rt. Reverend F.S. Spalding, D.D., Bishop of Utah, pp. 30-31 - Go back to article
11. According to Jerald and Sandra Tanner, the first person to reveal Dr. "Webb's" true identity was Fawn Brodie in No Man Knows My History, 1957, p. 175. Her claim was verified 3 years later, in 1960, by Dr. Sidney B. Sperry, a prominent BYU scholar, who confirmed that Dr. Webb's real name was Homans — although, Sperry mistakenly called him J.C. Homans, which led to some confusion over the next few years as to his real middle initial. See Pearl of Great Price Conference, Dec. 10, 1960, 1964 ed., pp 6, 9. These references were listed in the Tanners' Mormonism - Shadow or Reality, p. 300. Nowadays, there doesn't seem to be much controversy that Dr. "Webb" was actually a professional writer named J.E. Homans who was hired to pose as an expert in Egyptology by certain well-meaning LDS members in order to defend the Book of Abraham against the controversy sparked by Rev. Spaulding. - Go back to article