New Gospel Topics Essay: "Translation and Historicity of the Book of Abraham"

Papyrus Joseph Smith I, containing the original illustration of facsimile 1 from the Book of Abraham.
Papyrus Joseph Smith I, containing the original illustration of facsimile 1 from the Book of Abraham.
[Cross posted from the FairMormon blog.]

A new essay has been posted on the Church's Gospel Topics website, this time addressing the subject of the translation of the Book of Abraham. The article begins by affirming, "The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints embraces the book of Abraham as scripture." What follows is an overview of what's known about the translation and publication of the Book of Abraham, in addition to a look at the history of the Joseph Smith Papyri and evidences for the antiquity of the Book of Abraham. The essay is divided into a number of sections, including "The Book of Abraham as Scripture," "Origin of the Book of Abraham," "Translation and the Book of Abraham," "The Papyri," and "The Book of Abraham and the Ancient World." Each section is devoted to addressing the different aspects of the controversy surrounding the Book of Abraham, which is complex and multi-faceted.

"The Book of Abraham as Scripture"

After an introduction to the subject as a whole, the essay points out the importance of the Book of Abraham as modern scripture. "Thousands of years ago, the prophet Nephi learned that one purpose of the Book of Mormon was to 'establish the truth' of the Bible. In a similar way, the book of Abraham supports, expands, and clarifies the biblical account of Abraham’s life." Accordingly, we read in the Book of Abraham important details about the life of the great patriarch that augment and compliment the biblical account. This includes details about the life of Abraham, the Abrahamic covenant, the pre-mortal existence, and the creation. "Nowhere in the Bible is the purpose and potential of earth life stated so clearly as in the book of Abraham," which makes the Book of Abraham such a valuable book of scripture.

"Origin of the Book of Abraham"

In this brief section the article explains the history of the coming forth of the Egyptian papyri that was eventually purchased by Joseph Smith and the Church in 1835.

"Translation and the Book of Abraham"

Besides noting simply the history of the translation of the Book of Abraham, the essay also explores possible methods of translation. "Joseph Smith worked on the translation of the book of Abraham during the summer and fall of 1835, by which time he completed at least the first chapter and part of the second chapter," the essay observes. "His journal next speaks of translating the papyri in the spring of 1842, after the Saints had relocated to Nauvoo, Illinois. All five chapters of the book of Abraham, along with three illustrations (now known as facsimiles 1, 2, and 3), were published in the Times and Seasons, the Church’s newspaper in Nauvoo, between March and May 1842." However, the essay takes care to note that "Joseph’s translations [of scriptural texts] took a variety of forms. Some of his translations, like that of the Book of Mormon, utilized ancient documents in his possession. Other times, his translations were not based on any known physical records. Joseph’s translation of portions of the Bible, for example, included restoration of original text, harmonization of contradictions within the Bible itself, and inspired commentary." This is important to remember as one approaches the translation of the Book of Abraham, as it is not entirely clear precisely how Joseph translated or revealed the English text of the book. This is explored more fully in the next section.

"The Papyri"

The debate around the relationship between the Joseph Smith Papyri and the Book of Abraham text has proven extremely controversial. At one point it was thought that Joseph Smith's entire collection of papyri perished in the Chicago fire of 1871. However, "Ten papyrus fragments once in Joseph Smith’s possession ended up in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. In 1967, the museum transferred these fragments to the Church, which subsequently published them in the Church’s magazine, the Improvement Era." The significance of this discovery is noted by the essay.
The discovery of the papyrus fragments renewed debate about Joseph Smith’s translation. The fragments included one vignette, or illustration, that appears in the book of Abraham as facsimile 1. Long before the fragments were published by the Church, some Egyptologists had said that Joseph Smith’s explanations of the various elements of these facsimiles did not match their own interpretations of these drawings. Joseph Smith had published the facsimiles as freestanding drawings, cut off from the hieroglyphs or hieratic characters that originally surrounded the vignettes. The discovery of the fragments meant that readers could now see the hieroglyphs and characters immediately surrounding the vignette that became facsimile 1. None of the characters on the papyrus fragments mentioned Abraham’s name or any of the events recorded in the book of Abraham. Mormon and non-Mormon Egyptologists agree that the characters on the fragments do not match the translation given in the book of Abraham, though there is not unanimity, even among non-Mormon scholars, about the proper interpretation of the vignettes on these fragments. Scholars have identified the papyrus fragments as parts of standard funerary texts that were deposited with mummified bodies. These fragments date to between the third century B.C.E. and the first century C.E., long after Abraham lived.
What does this mean for the Book of Abraham, or at least for understanding how Joseph Smith revealed or translated the text? The essay lists two possibilities.
It is likely futile to assess Joseph’s ability to translate papyri when we now have only a fraction of the papyri he had in his possession. Eyewitnesses spoke of “a long roll” or multiple “rolls” of papyrus. Since only fragments survive, it is likely that much of the papyri accessible to Joseph when he translated the book of Abraham is not among these fragments. The loss of a significant portion of the papyri means the relationship of the papyri to the published text cannot be settled conclusively by reference to the papyri. Alternatively, Joseph’s study of the papyri may have led to a revelation about key events and teachings in the life of Abraham, much as he had earlier received a revelation about the life of Moses while studying the Bible. This view assumes a broader definition of the words translator and translation. According to this view, Joseph’s translation was not a literal rendering of the papyri as a conventional translation would be. Rather, the physical artifacts provided an occasion for meditation, reflection, and revelation. They catalyzed a process whereby God gave to Joseph Smith a revelation about the life of Abraham, even if that revelation did not directly correlate to the characters on the papyri.
These two theories or explanations are conventionally called the "missing papyrus theory" and the "catalyst theory," respectively, and have been the two major theories put forth by scholars investigating the Book of Abraham. Each theory has its own evidence, but neither theory can account for all of the evidence, which is why it's wise that the essay addressed both and why it's important to keep an open mind when approaching this topic.

"The Book of Abraham and the Ancient World"

Here the essay enumerates evidences linking the Book of Abraham with the ancient world. "A careful study of the book of Abraham provides a better measure of the book’s merits than any hypothesis that treats the text as a conventional translation," the essay explains. "Evidence suggests that elements of the book of Abraham fit comfortably in the ancient world and supports the claim that the book of Abraham is an authentic record." This evidence includes the following:

1. The archaeological verification of the practice of human sacrifice in Egypt and Canaan during the time of Abraham and later.

2. The potential identification of "the plain of Olishem" (Abraham 1:10) with a cite in northwestern Syria.

3. Elements of Joseph Smith's explanations of the facsimiles that find accord with ancient understandings.

4. Narrative details about the life of Abraham found in the Book of Abraham that are also found in other extra-biblical books from antiquity. This includes details of Abraham almost being sacrificed and Abraham teaching the Egyptians astronomy.

Additional evidence for the antiquity of the Book of Abraham not mentioned in the essay includes the astronomy and cosmology of the Book of Abraham fitting nicely in an ancient Near Eastern context (see here and here), in addition to other elements of Joseph Smith's explanations of the facsimiles finding confirmation in the ancient world (see here and here).

The essay concludes with this reminder.
The veracity and value of the book of Abraham cannot be settled by scholarly debate concerning the book’s translation and historicity. The book’s status as scripture lies in the eternal truths it teaches and the powerful spirit it conveys. The book of Abraham imparts profound truths about the nature of God, His relationship to us as His children, and the purpose of this mortal life. The truth of the book of Abraham is ultimately found through careful study of its teachings, sincere prayer, and the confirmation of the Spirit.
There are several things in this essay that are useful from an apologetic perspective.

1. There is useful clarification of what Joseph Smith may have meant by the term "translation." According to the essay,
The word translation typically assumes an expert knowledge of multiple languages. Joseph Smith claimed no expertise in any language. He readily acknowledged that he was one of the “weak things of the world,” called to speak words sent “from heaven.” Speaking of the translation of the Book of Mormon, the Lord said, “You cannot write that which is sacred save it be given you from me.” The same principle can be applied to the book of Abraham. The Lord did not require Joseph Smith to have knowledge of Egyptian. By the gift and power of God, Joseph received knowledge about the life and teachings of Abraham.
This is reiterated later in the essay.
Joseph’s translations took a variety of forms. Some of his translations, like that of the Book of Mormon, utilized ancient documents in his possession. Other times, his translations were not based on any known physical records. Joseph’s translation of portions of the Bible, for example, included restoration of original text, harmonization of contradictions within the Bible itself, and inspired commentary.
2. The essay explains why one should be careful in assuming that the hieratic text surrounding the vignette in P. Joseph Smith I (the original illustration of facsimile 1) must be connected with the vignette. "Some have assumed that the hieroglyphs adjacent to and surrounding facsimile 1 must be a source for the text of the book of Abraham. But this claim rests on the assumption that a vignette and its adjacent text must be associated in meaning. In fact, it was not uncommon for ancient Egyptian vignettes to be placed some distance from their associated commentary."

3. The essay provides an explanation for why the phrase "written by his own hand, upon papyrus" that appears along with the Book of Abraham isn't necessarily problematic for its historicity, despite the papyri dating much later than Abraham. "Of course, the fragments do not have to be as old as Abraham for the book of Abraham and its illustrations to be authentic. Ancient records are often transmitted as copies or as copies of copies. The record of Abraham could have been edited or redacted by later writers much as the Book of Mormon prophet-historians Mormon and Moroni revised the writings of earlier peoples." (For more on this topic, see my article on the Interpreter Foundation website here.)

(As an aside, I also find it significant that this essay cited material from both "classic FARMS" publications, such as Hugh Nibley's The Message of the Joseph Smith Papyri: An Egyptian Endowment, as well as Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture. This would seem to indicate, I believe, that the claim, made by some, that the Church is trying to distance itself from these materials should be accepted with a bit of skepticism.)

In addition to the essay from Gospel Topics, the following video ("A Most Remarkable Book: Evidence for the Divine Authenticity of the Book of Abraham") produced by FairMormon may be helpful to those with additional questions about this subject.