Examining the Book of Abraham
Chapter 5

Do Papyri Fragments=Book of Abraham?

Comparing Facsimile No. 1 as published in the Book of Abraham with the first papyrus fragment shown below, it's obvious that this particular fragment was the source of our published facsimile. While the similarities are apparent at the size of the picture below, they are more striking when blown up to actual size and in a higher resolution.

However, what about the text? How do we know if we have the actual papyrus used in the translation of the Book of Abraham? Can we determine if we have THE papyrus? The papyrus section above is the beginning of the scroll. Zooming outward, we can see that the next section contains only writing:

(Photos courtesy of the Institute for Religious Research)

Is it possible that the section to the immediate left of this vignette is the basis for the text of the Book of Abraham (since the Egyptians read right to left)?

As it turns out, because we still have the "Joseph Smith Egyptian Papers" in the Church archives, we do know for certain where the Book of Abraham came from — which symbols were used, and from which papyrus fragment they were derived.

The Joseph Smith Egyptian Papers consist in part of the following: An "Egyptian Alphabet and Grammar", in which Joseph Smith attempted to "crack" the Egyptian language, and three "Translation Manuscripts", in which each page had an Egyptian symbol in the left-hand margin with the supposedly corresponding English text in the right.

For example, below is a closer look at the papyrus section in question, along side a corresponding page from the written manuscript. Notice that not only do the same Egyptian symbols occur in both sources, but they both occur in the same order! Paragraph 1 = symbol 1, Paragraph 2 = symbol 2, etc., etc.

We currently have three different "Translation Manuscripts". They are called such because each of these manuscripts have Egyptian symbols drawn in the left margin followed by English text to the right of the margin, as pictured above.

The two translation manuscripts labeled "BAbr MS 1a" (in the handwriting of Frederick G. Williams) and "BAbr MS 1b" (in the handwriting of Warren Parrish) were written simultaneously from Joseph Smith's oral dictation.1 Each manuscript uses the same symbols, in the same order, and assigns nearly the exact same English text to each symbol. Unfortunately, our current extant BAbr MS 1a only covers Abr 1:4-2:6, and our current extant BAbr MS 1b only covers Abr 1:4-2:2.

The third translation manuscript, labeled "BAbr MS 2" is slightly longer — covering Abr 1:1-2:18. It's unfortunate that we don't have a translation manuscript (or a series of translation manuscripts) that covers the entire Book of Abraham. It would have been interesting to see which symbols Joseph Smith assigned to each English section. If the Church does own a complete translation manuscript, it hasn't let on that they have it and certainly hasn't released it to the public.

BAbr MS 2 is divided into three parts: the first half of page 1 was written down from oral dictation by William W. Phelps, with most of the next 7 pages copied from BAbr MS 1b, concluding with oral dictation written down by Warren Parrish.2 Therefore, BAbr MS 2 has material that the other two manuscripts don't have. For a more in-depth look at all three translation manuscripts, see The Book of Abraham Translation Manuscripts.

Below, I have included scans of the left hand margin of all 10 pages of BAbr MS 2 (courtesy of H. Michael Marquardt).

One of the important things to note below is that the entire manuscript uses the symbols from the papyrus in order, reading from right to left, exactly as we would expect if Joseph Smith was using this papyrus fragment as the basis of his "translation".

Even when there is a missing section of the fragment (i.e. a lacuna), it seems that Joseph apparently estimated how many symbols would have been there originally, then, I assume using his "revelatory abilities", proceeded to fill in the missing Egyptian text with invented symbols of his own — or, probably in his mind, to "restore" the symbols that were originally there.

In an upcoming essay, I'm going to try to summarize the various positions of the defenders of the Book of Abraham, and as we will see, many apologists of the Church contend that the Egyptian symbols on these translation manuscripts were put there either as "decoration", or as an exercise by the scribes in "studying things out in their minds", so they could somehow try to figure out what Joseph Smith was doing in his head.3

Yet, when we see all ten pages of the manuscripts together, it should seem pretty clear that the use of Egyptian symbols wasn't decorative in manner. Nor are they haphazard. There is organization in how they are used in this translation manuscript, and seems very purposeful.

As much as the defenders of the Book of Abraham would like to distance Joseph Smith from participating in the creation of the translation manuscripts, their arguments simply don't hold much water. The bottom line is that this particular papyrus fragment was definitely used in the translation process, as evidenced in part by the above translation manuscript. Therefore, to me, it seems very safe to conclude that we have in our possession THE papyrus section from which the Book of Abraham was derived.

The Original Papyri Rediscovered
Table of Contents Next
Translation of Egyptian Symbols — The Breathing Permit of Hôr

**** Footnotes ****

1. H. Michael Marquardt, The Joseph Smith Egyptian Papers, p. 167 - Go back to article

2. H. Michael Marquardt, The Joseph Smith Egyptian Papers, p. 146 - Go back to article

3. By the way, as of this writing, I've never seen an apologist attempt to explain how placing symbols arbitrarily next to the English text could possibly help the scribes study the translation process "out in their minds", and it seems utterly incomprehensible to me that the scribes would do this if Joseph Smith hadn't specified which symbols, or at least which specific papyrus section, that he was using to produce this "translation". - Go back to article

The Original Papyri Rediscovered
Table of Contents Next
Translation of Egyptian Symbols — The Breathing Permit of Hôr