Examining the Book of Abraham
The Original Papyri Rediscovered
There were actually two discoveries that combined together to refuel the debate that had been smoldering for decades. The first wasn't exactly a "discovery," per se, but it was the first time the public had laid eyes on certain documents by Joseph Smith that were related to the Book of Abraham. These documents were usually tucked out of sight inside the Church archives where few people even knew they existed.
But in April 1966, Modern Microfilm Company obtained and published copies from microfilm of the "Egyptian Alphabet and Grammar" that Joseph Smith began in 1835, and manuscript copies of most of the first chapter and the beginning of the second chapter of the Book of Abraham. The manuscript is particularly interesting in that we are shown Egyptian characters in the left margin of the page with the corresponding English text to the right of each character. These documents are now generally referred to as the "Joseph Smith Egyptian Papers".
A page from one of the Book of Abraham manuscripts with the Egyptian symbols in the left margin. (Courtesy of the Institute for Religious Research)
The second discovery was in 1966 by Dr. Aziz Atiya, a professor of Arabic Studies at the University of Utah. The "official" story — i.e., the story told to the newspapers at the time, and the story told by the Church — was that Dr. Atiya was visiting New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, rummaging through some old documents for a book he was writing, when he came upon some old papyri. Even though Dr. Atiya was non-LDS, he immediately recognized one of the pictures — what we know in the Church as Facsimile #1. Thus began a series of events that would ultimately lead to the Church recovering what everyone up to now had believed to be destroyed in Chicago. However, other evidence exists that there was much more awareness about the existence of the papyri for many years prior to this. For an interview with Dr. Henry G. Fischer, Curator of the Egyptian Collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art at that time, see footnote "a".
The papyrus, which originally would have been two long rolls, had been cut up into different sections. Each section was glued to a piece of 19th-century paper, which, when turned over, comprised such things as architectural drawings of a temple, and maps of Ohio, etc. In addition, there was a bill of sale included by Emma Smith Bidemon for the sale of the collection.
Once the relationships between all these various pieces were determined, it was discovered that there were actually two different papyrus rolls — one of which, as will be explained later, was the basis for the Book of Abraham, and the other was the Book of Joseph, according to Joseph Smith.
The papyrus for The "Book of Abraham" (Courtesy of the Institute for Religious Research)
The papyrus for the "Book of Joseph" (Courtesy of the Institute for Religious Research)
Click here to see a little larger image of the "Book of Joseph".
This "Book of Joseph" corresponds to Oliver Cowdery's description in the December 1835 issue of the Messenger and Advocate, p. 234-237:
"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 paint1, in perfect preservation. The characters are such as you find upon the coffins of mummies, hieroglyphics, &c. with many characters or letters exactly like the present, (though probably not quite so square,) form of the Hebrew without points...
"...The evidence is apparent upon the face, that they were written by persons acquainted with the history of the creation, the fall of man... The representation of the god-head — three yet one, is curiously drawn to give simply, though impressively, the writers views of that exalted personage. 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 far towards convincing the rational mind of the correctness and divine authority of the holy scriptures... Enoch's Pillar, as mentioned by Josephus, is upon the same roll...
"Though the Mummies themselves are a curiosity, and an astonishment, well calculated to arouse the mind to a reflection of past ages,... yet I do not consider them of much value compared with those records which were deposited with them."2
**** Footnotes ****
a. An interview in Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, Winter, 1968, pp. 55-64, with Dr. Henry G. Fischer, Curator of the Egyptian Collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, sheds some light on what the museum and the LDS Church knew about the papyri and when they knew it. This interview was conducted by Norman Tolk, Lynn Travers, George D. Smith, Jr., and F. Charles Graves. What follows are two relevant excerpts of the interview.
DIALOGUE: How did these manuscripts actually come into the possession of the Metropolitan Museum?
FISCHER: Our first knowledge of them goes back to 1918 when our first curator, Dr. A.M. Lythgoe, was shown these fragments by a Mrs. Alice Heusser, a woman who lived in Brooklyn. I think that must be the way you pronounce her name (he spells it out). Her mother had been housekeeper to a person named Combs, and Combs had bought them from the family of Joseph Smith. It is that sale which is mentioned in the letter I referred to. On the death of Mr. A. Combs, they were left to Mrs. Heusser's mother. One of our staff members, Dr. Ludlow Bull, had maintained an interest in these records; in about 1946 he tried to find out where they were and they were offered to us by the widower of Mrs. Heusser, Mr. Edward Heusser. We acquired them then in 1947. Of course, we knew because we had the letter too, what the relevance was to the Mormon Church.
DIALOGUE: You were aware at that time, in fact, even in 1918, that it was relevant to the Church; however, you did not at that time contact anyone who was associated with the Mormon Church?
FISCHER: Frankly, we didn't know what the Mormon Church's wishes were. It wasn't until we discussed the matter with Professor Atiya, who teaches in Salt Lake City at the University of Utah, that we had a possibility of finding out how they felt about it. Then it became possible to transfer the documents from us to them.
DIALOGUE: At what time did Dr. Atiya become aware of the existence of the scrolls?
FISCHER: I would say about a year ago. We know him well; he is a gentleman we have been associated with through the American Research Center in Egypt and so on. He had come to our department and was looking for illustrations for one of his books. This matter came up in the course of giving him this help. We knew, since he worked in Salt Lake City and was acquainted with leaders of the Mormon Church, that he might very tactfully find out how they felt about it. So we simply informed him about this in confidence, and I think he handled the matter very nicely.
DIALOGUE: There was a period of approximately one year between the time Dr. Atiya became aware of the scrolls and the Church acquired them. We would be interested in learning what sort of research Dr. Atiya and others did to verify that these scrolls were authentic, and that indeed they were the ones that were associated with Joseph Smith. Was Dr. Atiya involved in research of this nature during that year?
FISCHER: I don't know. I imagine that he simply passed on photographs to the Church leaders, and then they could see for themselves. I think the two points, the letter and the illustration in the papyrus that was reproduced by Joseph Smith in the Pearl of Great Price just clinched the matter beyond all doubt. I think they were immediately convinced on the basis of the photographs.
...[cut to p. 64]
DIALOGUE: I'd like to ask one clarification question. Was it in 1918 that the Museum acquired the papyri?
FISCHER: We didn't acquire them until 1947. As I said before, the curator of our department was shown these documents in 1918. Many years afterwards, another member of our department, Dr. Bull, asked the family whether they still had them. Finally, he found out that the husband of Alice Heusser was still alive, and the husband sold them to us. But that wasn't until 1947. Then, a year ago, we made contact with Professor Atiya. It took us a little time before I was able to correspond with him. Subsequently, we put this matter before the director and our trustees. As you know, we had a change of directorship. I think that as museums do things, we acted with reasonable speed.
DIALOGUE: Is this a standard practice to give such documents to interested private institutions such as the Church?
FISCHER: I am glad you asked that question, since, technically, we have not given the documents to the Church. As far as the Church is concerned, it is a gift, of course, but it was made possible by an anonymous donation which covered the cost to the Museum. We have not set a precedent for giving away an object; we cannot be in that position.
DIALOGUE: Would you say that the Church does not have complete ownership? Is there a way by which these documents could be called back?
FISCHER: No absolutely not. They are a gift from the Museum, but the gift was made possible because of an anonymous donation from a friend of ours.
DIALOGUE: Does the Metropolitan Museum have a photographic record of all of these documents, including the letter?
FISCHER: Yes, we do.
DIALOGUE: Does the Metropolitan Museum plan to publish information on these scrolls?
FISCHER: No, we are going to leave that to the Mormon Church. I am sure they are going to publish these texts in such a way that they can be studied eventually. I don't think they ought to be pressed. This is their prerogative. We have given them that prerogative along with the documents. - Go back to article
1. The red lettering doesn't come through well in these low-quality scans, but is peppered throughout the document. Click here to see a slightly larger image of the "Book of Joseph" papyri. In it you can make out some of the red lettering. For high quality color photos of this scroll (where the red lettering is obvious) and the scroll that was used to make the Book of Abraham, see Charles Larson's ...By His Own Hands Upon Papyrus. If you are a member of the LDS Church, the Institute for Religious Research will give you a free copy of Larson's book. I highly recommend you avail yourself of this generous offer. - Go back to article
2. Messenger and Advocate, December 1835, p. 234-237 - Go back to article