Admission and Omission: What Is the Church’s Position on the Book of Abraham?

“Printing Plates of Facsimiles of Papyrus Drawings, Nauvoo, IL, early 1842” (http://josephsmithpapers.org)

In his March 2015 letter to the First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints appealing his excommunication, John Dehlin claims there has been a “recent admission” on the part of the Church “that the Book of Abraham is not a translation of the Egyptian papyrus, as Joseph Smith claimed that it was.” Dehlin quotes the Church’s 2014 Gospel Topics essay “Translation and Historicity of the Book of Abraham” to wit:

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.

Dehlin raises this point again later in his letter. One of the many “disturbing facts” he “stumbled upon” in his studies is that “by the LDS Church’s own admission, the Book of Abraham is not a translation of the Egyptian papyrus.” This, among other things, Dehlin says, was “deeply disturbing and destabilizing for [him].”

Dehlin’s allies Nadine R. Hansen and Kate Kelly also raise this point in the same letter. “The Church’s own essays openly and truthfully acknowledge this difficulty,” they write, “by stating, ‘None of the characters on the papyrus fragments mentioned Abraham’s name or any of the events recorded in the book of Abraham.'” Consequently, “While the Church may continue to maintain that the Book of Abraham is inspired, canonical writing, but it must do so while acknowledging that Joseph Smith’s early statement that it is Abraham’s writings, ‘by his own hand upon the papyrus,’ is not factbased.” (On this last point, see my article here.)

These authors are not alone in claiming the Church has made this “recent admission” about the Book of Abraham. Jeremy Runnells, in his anti-Mormon screed known conventionally as the CES Letter, remarks, “The Church conceded in its July 2014 Translation and Historicity of the Book of Abraham essay that Joseph’s translations of the papyri and the facsimiles do not match what’s in the Book of Abraham.”

With these statements from Dehlin and Runnells in mind, let’s take a closer look at what the Gospel Topics essay actually says about the Book of Abraham.

I. The nature of the surviving papyri fragments. On this matter, the Gospel Topics essay matter-of-factly states that the surviving papyri fragments do not contain the Book of Abraham. “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.” However, this is by no means a “recent” admission or concession by the Church. In fact, what these authors fail to inform their readers is that the Church immediately identified the Joseph Smith Papyri fragments as copies of funerary texts when it received them from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1967. In the January 1968 issue of the Improvement Era, the Church identified the recovered fragments as “conventional . . . Egyptian funerary texts, which were commonly buried with Egyptian mummies.” The Church has reaffirmed this simple fact in subsequent publications.

  • “Mormon Media” (1975): “Brother Nibley marshals a considerable array of talents in fulfilling the second and major purpose of the book, which is to discuss the meaning of the Joseph Smith papyri. Identifying Joseph Smith Papyri X and XI with the Egyptian Book of Breathings becomes a point of departure for Brother Nibley, rather than, as with other scholars, a final pronouncement.”
  • “I Have a Question” (1976): “Q: Are the three facsimiles related to each other? A: Definitely, by all being attached to one and the same document, namely, the Joseph Smith Papyri X and XI, which contain a text of the Egyptian Book of Breathings. Facsimile No. 1 is followed immediately on its left-hand margin by Joseph Smith Papyrus XI, which begins the Book of Breathings. Someone cut them apart, but the fibre edges of their two margins still match neatly. Facsimile No. 1 thus serves as a sort of frontispiece.”
  • “I Have a Question” (1988): “[Facsimile 1] can be connected with several of the other papyri fragments that relate to the text of an ancient Egyptian religious document known as the “Book of Sensen” or “Book of Breathings.”. . .  [F]rom paleographic and historical considerations, the Book of Breathings papyrus can reliably be dated to around A.D. 60—much too late for Abraham to have written it. Of course, it could be a copy—or a copy of a copy—of the original written by Abraham. However, a second problem arises when one compares the text of the book of Abraham with a translation of the Book of Breathings; they clearly are not the same.”
  • “Book of Abraham: Facsimiles From the Book of Abraham” (1992): “Only for Facsimile 1 is the original document known to be extant. Comparisons of the papyrus fragments as well as the hieroglyphic text accompanying this drawing demonstrate that it formed a part of an Egyptian religious text known as the Book of Breathings. Based on paleographic and historical evidence, this text can be reliably dated to about the first century A.D. Since reference is made to this illustration in the book of Abraham (Abr. 1:12), many have concluded that the Book of Breathings must be the text that the Prophet Joseph Smith used in his translation. Because the Book of Breathings is clearly not the book of Abraham, critics claim this is conclusive evidence that Joseph Smith was unable to translate the ancient documents.”
  • “News From Antiquity” (1994): “[Critics of the Church] point to the fragments of the Joseph Smith papyri that we now possess and claim that since the contents of these papyri bear little obvious relationship to the book of Abraham, the book is a fraud.”
  • Church History In The Fulness Of Times Student Manual (2003): “In 1967 eleven fragments of the Joseph Smith papyri were rediscovered by Doctor Aziz S. Atiya, in the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art. Studies of them have confirmed that they are mainly ancient Egyptian funerary texts of the sort commonly buried with royalty and nobility and designed to guide them through their eternal journeyings. This has renewed the question about the connection between the records and the book of Abraham.”

One might quibble here or there with the wording of these passages. For example, the Pearl of Great Price Student Manual mentions the late date of the papyri, but doesn’t explicitly mention that the papyri are fragments from the Book of Breathings and the Book of the Dead. Nevertheless, when these sources are combined, the basic point cannot be negated: the Church has straightforwardly taught that the surviving papyri fragments do not contain the Book of Abraham, but instead contain late copies of Egyptian funerary texts. Dehlin and Runnells are misleading their readers by claiming this “admission” is recent, or has just now been recognized by the Church in the 2014 Gospel Topics essay. In fact, the Church has acknowledged this fact since at least 1968.

II. On why the Book of Abraham is not contained in the surviving papyri. Dehlin and Runnells both conspicuously fail to alert their readers to the part of the Gospel Topics essay on the Book of Abraham that explicitly addresses reasons why the Book of Abraham text was not recovered in the surviving papyri fragments. The essay clearly identifies at least two potential reasons. “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,” the essay notes. “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.” In other words, the essay clearly recognizes the so-called “missing papyrus theory” as a possible explanation for why the surviving fragments don’t match the Book of Abraham.

The essay also mentions the so-called “catalyst theory” for the Book of Abraham as another possible explanation.

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.

From this we see that Dehlin and Runnels have misled their readers by selectively presenting what the Gospel Topics essay claims about the relationship between the papyri and the Book of Abraham.

III. What about Elder Holland’s BBC Interview? Although not explicitly mentioned by Dehlin in his letter to the First Presidency (although it is mentioned and, not surprisingly, distorted by Runnells), it is worth quickly looking at Elder Jeffrey R. Holland’s remarks on the Book of Abraham made in a 2012 interview with BBC reporter John Sweeney. When Sweeney pressed Elder Holland on the matter of the translation of the Book of Abraham, Elder Holland responded, “[W]hat got translated got translated into the word of God; the vehicle for that I do not understand.” What does this statement reveal? First, notice carefully that Elder Holland calls the Book of Abraham a “translation.” He also calls it the “word of God.” So Elder Holland, it appears, both accepts the Book of Abraham as an authentic “translation” and as inspired scripture. Second, notice that Elder Holland simply remarks that he doesn’t know the mechanism (“vehicle”) of the translation of the Book of Abraham. In other words, he doesn’t know precisely how the translation was performed. This is different from how Runnells and others have characterized Elder Holland’s remarks. Due to some obviously heavy editing of the original footage into what became the broadcasted program, it is impossible to know precisely what, if anything, Elder Holland said in addition by way of clarification. Notwithstanding, at the risk of speaking on behalf of Elder Holland, I believe it is safe to assume that he merely meant he didn’t know the precise nature of the translation (e.g. “missing papyrus,” “catalyst,” or something else), and wasn’t obfuscating in some way about the Church’s position.

IV. The Facsimiles. Dehlin and Runnells also omit the Gospel Topics essay’s comments on the interpretation of the facsimiles. The essay explains,

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. Moreover, documents initially composed for one context can be repackaged for another context or purpose. Illustrations once connected with Abraham could have either drifted or been dislodged from their original context and reinterpreted hundreds of years later in terms of burial practices in a later period of Egyptian history. The opposite could also be true: illustrations with no clear connection to Abraham anciently could, by revelation, shed light on the life and teachings of this prophetic figure.

The essay therefore provides an explanation for why images illustrating the Book of Abraham could’ve ended up attached to an Egyptian funerary text, and why there is otherwise disjunction between Joseph Smith’s interpretation of the facsimiles and Egyptologists’ interpretations. In fact, the essay goes on to further explain, “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.” Thus, in order to fully appreciate the Church’s explanation of the facsimiles, one needs to keep this commentary in mind. To omit it is to ultimately distort a critical aspect of the Church’s apologia for the Book of Abraham.


V. The 2013 edition of the Pearl of Great Price. Before concluding, it is worth highlighting the changes made to the 2013 edition of the Pearl of Great Price. The pre-2013 edition of the Pearl of Great Price identified the text as “[a] translation from some Egyptian papyri that came into the hands of Joseph Smith in 1835, containing writings of the patriarch Abraham.” By comparison, the 2013 edition characterizes the Book of Abraham as “an inspired translation of the writings of Abraham. Joseph Smith began the translation in 1835 after obtaining some Egyptian papyri.” Some have argued that this is another admission by the Church that the Book of Abraham isn’t really a translation. This seems unlikely, however, since the 2013 edition still retains the (slightly modified) header that has accompanied the Book of Abraham since its 1842 publication: “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.” If the Church really was ceding ground on the Book of Abraham as a translation, one has to wonder why they left in this rather explicate superscript to the text.

Another overlooked change in the 2013 edition of the Pearl of Great Price comes at the beginning of the introductory page. The pre-2013 edition explains that “[t]hese items [i.e. the contents of the Pearl of Great Price] were produced by the Prophet Joseph Smith and were published in the Church periodicals of his day.” The 2013 edition, however, reads, “These items were translated and produced by the Prophet Joseph Smith, and most were published in the Church periodicals of his day.” Notice here the word “translated” was deliberately added in reference to the materials found in the Pearl of Great Price, which would presumably include the Book of Abraham. Thus, far from backing away from the Book of Abraham as being a translation of some sort, the Church, it could be argued, has in recent years actually reinforced an understanding of the Book of Abraham as a “translation.” The new edition of the Pearl of Great Price simply affirms that the Book of Abraham is an “inspired translation of the writings of Abraham,” while omitting details of the exact process, which remains up for debate.

In conclusion, one would do well to eschew the mishandled and misleading presentations of the Church’s position on the Book of Abraham offered by Dehlin and Runnells. The 2014 Gospel Topics essay hasn’t “conceded” or “admitted” anything about the Book of Abraham. The contents of the essay have, by and large, been circulating in both Church materials and other Mormon publications for decades. On the other hand, Dehlin and Runnells have omitted important material that helps us better understand this remarkable scriptural work.

5 thoughts on “Admission and Omission: What Is the Church’s Position on the Book of Abraham?

  1. Or did they fail to read the tidbit in the LDS essay: "The papyri were divided up and sold to various parties; historians believe that most were destroyed in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. Ten papyrus fragments once in Joseph Smith’s possession ended up in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City."

    This would mean that there is a significant portion of lost papyrus, which very well could contain the Book of Abraham. There is direct evidence of missing papyri. Is it impossible to believe that the translated portion is part of those lost manuscripts? I guess being narrow-minded has its perks though…

    • Quoth Dehlin, "I’m not a reader by nature." ("Dubious 'Mormon' Stories," 13)

      As for Runnells, remember that on this very blog he once called it a "false assumption" to consider him a scholar or his letter a scholarly piece.

      So . . . there's that, I suppose.

  2. It is obvious that, for whatever reason, people like Dehlin, Runnells, and others like them, are focussing only on the things to back up their way of thinking. They refuse to look at the whole picture. They cherry pick phrases, comments, Scripture, whatever, just like all anti Mormons to put the church in the most negative light possible

    I do not understand why people do this. LDS critics accuse LDS scholars, apologetics, and members of cherry picking, interpreting and twisting Scripture to support claims, and using only non LDS scholars that agree with LDS doctrine and way of thinking. The fact is LDS critics are the consummate hypocrites. They do the very things they accuse LDS of doing.

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