Why Mormons need the Book of Abraham

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This Bas-relief detail from Luxor has absolutely nothing to do with Joseph Smith. It just looked cool. A prize to anyone who comes up with the most inspired translation.


This Bas-relief detail from Luxor has absolutely nothing to do with Joseph Smith. It just looked cool. A prize to anyone who comes up with the most inspired translation.

This Bas-relief detail from Luxor has absolutely nothing to do with Joseph Smith. It just looked cool. A prize to anyone who comes up with the most inspired translation.

This Bas-relief detail from Luxor has absolutely nothing to do with Joseph Smith. It just looked cool. A prize to anyone who comes up with the most inspired translation.

This week the LDS Church released another statement in its excellent Gospel Topics series, this one focusing on the Book of Abraham and some of the trickier historical questions raised by its “translation” by Joseph Smith.

The statement tries to resolve historical questions about the Book of Abraham and focus on what the Church sees as the most important thing about it: its timeless doctrinal and spiritual truths.

It offers not one but two tenable arguments for why a discrepancy exists between Joseph Smith’s translation and what we have long supposed to be the Book of Abraham’s ur text. Neither of these arguments is new, but it’s certainly the first time they’ve appeared on the Church’s website as definitive.

First, we don’t have all the papyrus pieces and it’s entirely possible that what Joseph Smith was translating just isn’t part of the fragments we have left. An argument from absence.

Second, the statement invites us all to rethink what we have meant by the word “translate” in regards to Joseph Smith.

Maybe translate doesn’t mean that you take a document from one language and find the best approximate words in your own language to describe the original as closely as you can. Maybe it means something more akin to revelation.

This is a dicier proposition than the argument from absence. It asks Mormons to cast Joseph Smith in a different light than he has been considered throughout Mormon history—and indeed, in a different light than Smith may have desired for himself.

That last part is the main stumbling block. We can likely buy the idea that the Book of Abraham is an “inspired by” adaptation, because isn’t that what we have in the Book of Mormon? A book that Joseph translated by supernatural means without having studied its original language—and sometimes even without looking at the original text?

But we have a harder time reconciling Joseph’s own statements and actions around the Book of Abraham. The new Gospel Topics statement says that Joseph “didn’t claim to be an expert in languages,” but I don’t find that entirely true. He assiduously – and very admirably – sought to correct his own lack of education by studying Hebrew, and sought not once but twice to create a book of Egyptian grammar, along with several followers. People don’t usually write a book about something unless they’re positioning themselves as experts.

Whatever the circumstances surrounding the translation of the Book of Abraham, it’s clear that we have historically taken from the book exactly what our particular era needed from it. Mormons from the early days even up through the brilliant Hugh Nibley emphasized the props of history: the artifacts themselves and any scholarly imprimatur we could manage to scare up to bolster our claims.

It’s a brave new world now when we are left with only the Book of Abraham itself, and what it says.

But not all of what it says. The Gospel Topics statement doesn’t call attention to its trippier teachings, such as the revolutions of the star Kolob and the chronology of God-time.

The statement also steers well clear of the book’s most troubling legacy: that descendants of “the loins of Ham” were partakers “in the blood of the Canaanites” and therefore ineligible for the priesthood. By linking this with another PGP passage that claimed a “blackness” among the “children of Canaan,” early Mormons damnably put two and two together and tied ineligibility for priesthood with race.

I for one am glad that we are choosing to emphasize totally different aspects of the Book of Abraham today:

  • That Abraham saw a spirit, Jesus Christ, who was like unto God.
  • That this mortal life is the crux of God’s plan for human happiness.
  • And that God apparently shops at the Container Store and is all about organizing the matter that already exists rather than bringing lots of new stuff in that we have to find places for. I like that in a deity.

Then again, I am entirely a creature of my age. Mormons a century from now will likely find entirely different things to like or hate about the Book of Abraham.

  • The Book of Abraham has always been one of my favorite and the doctrines in it are the greatest tie, for me, to Mormonism. To understand the “translation” better it is simpler to explain how revelation works. The problem with revelation is that while God is perfect and all knowing, man is not. A prophet doesn’t always get his own prophecy. Jonah is a great example of this. He predicted destruction, but when the people repented and were not destroyed he thought he was in the wrong. He didn’t get the prophecy. I think there are a number of things that could have happened with the Book of Abraham:

    1. We don’t have the original so we don’t have all the evidence, the evidence we do have is wrong because we don’t understand it. (This is plausible but very unlikely to me)

    2. The Egyptian text is a perverted version of what Abraham taught and Smith didn’t translate it as much as he restored it. But, he didn’t know Egyptian so he just thought he was translating it. (This is the most likely in my mind)

    3. Smith was given a ton revelation and didn’t know how to give it to the people as it may have seemed too much for them, so when the mummies showed up he took what he knew and put Abraham’s name on it. The Book could still be from Abraham, lost to time, but Smith needed to tie it to something physical and used the papyrus as a prop to sell what he knew was true. (Very unlikely for a prophet of God, but all men make mistakes)

    4. God was trying to give Smith revelation at the time the papyrus showed up and he misunderstood where the revelation was coming from (like three, but an honest mistake)

    5. Be had so much faith in the papyrus being the book of Abraham that God revealed the Book of Abraham to him via his faith, like the Brother of Jarod seeing the finger of the Lord.

    6. Any combination of these

    These are a few ideas I have, but the point is made that we don’t know. The doctrine is sound, but we have no clue where Smith got it. Does it matter? I often wonder, if the gold plates were around, would Smith still be seen as a fraud when scholars translated them and the name “Jesus” wasn’t to be found anywhere? It wouldn’t be in there, after all – it’s the Greek form of Yoshua (Joshua).

  • John F.

    Thank you, Jana. Very well written and very well reasoned. I admit that the Gospel Topics Statement shook me up a bit. Your article talked me off the ledge.

  • bubu

    Are your really that freaking gullible?

  • Ken Dahl

    A century from now the Book of Abraham will be a long forgotten legacy of residual nonsense when the train of the supposed “gospel restoration” careened off the rails.

  • It is time to admit that the Mormon scriptures have too many problems compared to the Christian bible (the one not adjusted and mangled by Joseph Smith).

    Look up ‘cognitive dissonance’ in Wikipedia or elsewhere. That’s the psychological process that explains why Mormons try to make the facts conform to the fiction instead of the other way around.

    Recently a stolen Henri Matisse painting was returned to the Caracas Museum of Contemporary Art. The theft of the painting was discovered in 2002, but no one knows when they work of art was actually stolen, because it had been replaced by a pretty good replica.

    Mormonism is like that. Joseph Smith came up with a forgery that to the untrained eye looks a lot like Christianity, but that time and again is exposed as a fake.

  • Anton, you’re funny. A first century AD Jew could have said essentially the same thing:

    It is time to admit that the Christian scriptures have too many problems compared to the tanakh (Hebrew bible) . . .

    (Aside to 21st-century readers: Look up ‘cognitive dissonance’ in Wikipedia or elsewhere. That’s the psychological process that explains why Christians tried to make the facts conform to the fiction instead of the other way around. . . .)

    Christianity is like that. Jesus and his apostles came up with a forgery that to the untrained eye looks a lot like Judaism, but that time and again is exposed as a fake.

    So Joseph Smith et al. are really only following in the footsteps of Jesus and his apostles. Not bad company to keep, I would say.

    Maybe someone in Jesus’ day should have told them that Deuteronomy 4:2 forbids adding to or taking from the Bible. Sure would have saved John the trouble of saying essentially the same thing in Revelation 22:18-19.

    I wonder if you would care to explain what you meant by “untrained eye?” What kind of training does an eye need to spot such forgeries to which you refer? Theological training, perhaps? A degree from a seminary? If so, then we can safely exclude Jesus and his apostles from any theoretical group of men and women with trained eyes. We totally wouldn’t have wanted any of them leading the church of their day, right? Only those with trained eyes need apply, right?

    I’m being cheeky because your arguments are unsound and have not meaningfully contributed to the conversation. We appreciate your work protecting the world from dangerous cults, but I assure you Mormonism isn’t one of them, and we’re just going to have to figure out a way to amicably coexist since us Mormons, contrary to Ken Dahl’s prophecy, are here to stay.

  • Nate, the Bible does not contradict the Jewish scriptures — but the Mormon scriptures do contradict the Bible. You’re comparing apples and oranges.

    Too, while the Mormon scriptures are subject to constant editing (and other forms of damage control) the Bible provides a constant message.

    The Tanners long ago documented the Changing World of Mormonism, and their book is now available online, free of charge:

    Countless people have found the way out of Mormonism by questioning what they have always been taught, and that book has been a good starting point for many of them.

  • Yes, the Tanners renowned for their honesty and impartiality in their assessment of Mormonism.

    Every known change to the Book of Mormon has been carefully scrutinized by Royal Skousen, generally considered the preeminent authority on such matters. I would start with his take on the issue over the Tanners. In Skousen’s assessment, there have been no changes to the Book of Mormon that are fatal to its message.

    I’m not comparing apples to oranges when I say that the doctrine that Jesus and his apostles taught, as recorded in the New Testament, was highly offensive, contradictory, unorthodox, and heretical (there are probably other applicable adjectives) to what was commonly accepted by the different sects of Judaism as authoritative scripture. That Jesus and his apostles gained a following suggests that what they taught resonated with some of their peers, but by and large they were rejected, much as you reject Joseph Smith.

    I am left to wonder whether you have even read the whole Bible alongside the three additional books of scripture accepted by Latter-day Saints. There is a consistency of message all throughout those four works that is absolutely staggering, when considered in light of the fact that Joseph Smith was largely illiterate. If God cannot work such a miracle with such an instrument, then that constitutes a substantial diminishment of God’s power, a proposition I don’t think you’re willing to make.

    Instead of comparing the early Christians to the Jews, I was originally going to say that Christianity after the death of the original apostles resembled Jesus’ organized church less and less as time went by, with its hellenization, and creeds, and schisms, and reformations, and counter-reformations, and inquisitions, and the like. But that’s probably not a rabbit whole we want to go down since it would do great damage to your likely view that Christianity today is exactly as it was in Jesus’ time. And if that’s not your view, and instead you acknowledge that there have been changes made to Christianity, or the Church, or whatever we may settle on as a mutually agreeable term, then I must ask, by what authority were said changes made? Did the apostolic keys of the kingdom continue with the Catholics as they claim? Was it by inspiration, nay, revelation by the whisperings of the Holy Ghost? Was it by reason or logic granted unto man to govern his own affairs? Was it because we are better at interpreting the Bible today than when it was being written?

    In the end we are not likely to convince each other of our respective interpretation of the facts. But you could do much better than resorting to the old chestnuts squirreled up by the Tanners and the worn out canard of Mormons editing their scriptures for damage control (especially when our edits have never been a secret, as they are openly discussed by our own scholars) or the fundamentalist trope that the Bible contains no contradictions (did Noah take two of every sort of animal per Genesis 6 or was it two of every sort except for the clean ones and then it was seven of every sort per Genesis 7; or did the men traveling with Saul to Damascus hear the Lord’s voice per Acts 9:7 or did the not per Acts 22:9?).

    I’d still like your take on what you considered a trained eye versus an untrained eye and how that relates to Jesus having chosen primarily blue-collar workers rather than highly trained theologians to run his church.

  • That is, the Tanners are renowned for their honesty and impartiality. I forgot the ‘are.’

    You’ll please forgive the typos and omissions. It’s late at night.

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  • Is your name really bubu?

  • Actually, the Bible has just as many problems. There are many historical inaccuracies that we know for a fact are not true in the Bible. Like the Book of Mormon, it was written by men and is not perfect. There is no perfect holy book anywhere on the Earth that we know of.

  • That’s the interesting thing, while yes the Bible contradicts itself and only a fool or a charlatan will deny this, Mormonism is suppose to be a changing religion, it says so in the D&C. If we wanted to reject the Book of Mormon tomorrow we could, as we learn line upon line, precept upon precept. If it brought 1 person or 15 million people to Jesus Christ it met its one and only goal and could be retired, if that were God’s will. Meanwhile other Christian faiths in the Protestant world, for example, change all the time yet use the same Bible. They do not have this same privilege Mormon Christians have, as they should be sticking to their one true god – the Bible. God can’t tell Protestants anything, as they only worship and listen to the Bible. It is their alpha and omega. So why all the changes?

  • When I ask my students to translate Catullus, they know precisely what I mean, and it’s not to give me a revelation.

    Joseph Smith is last in the line of the mystagogues, like Athanasius Kircher, who could claim Egypt as the origin of their ideas. Joseph’s problem was that he was unlucky enough to publish his inspired translations after Champollion, not to mention the invention of newsprint.

  • Sarah

    Anton just one question, which version of the Bible is has been unchanged from the start? The NIV, KJV, The NLJV, the Vulgate, Jerusalem Bible, or the New American Bible?

  • Jeff P.

    So, how do Mormon’s ‘place’ the Book of Abraham in relation to other Mormon scriptures, and the Christian and Hebrew, scriptures? Would Mormons say one should read the Bible, or the Book of Mormon, through the lens of the Book of Abraham? Or, should one interpret the Book of Abraham through the lens of what God revealed about God’s self in the Bible or the Book of Mormon? Is the Book of Mormon seen as the ‘final word’? Is the Christian Bible? Or the Book of Abraham?

    This was up a recurring question I (a non-Mormon fan of Jana’s writing) had while reading-through the Book of Mormon this spring, How I should be ‘reading’ a book in relation to other book on the Book of Mormon, the Bible, or other Mormon Scriptures. I did use the Sunday-school manual which a dear friend gave me, and Jana’s abbreviated annotation of the Book of Mormon, but didn’t see that issue addressed. Jana’s commentary in places seemed to me to be reading theology coming from somewhere else back-in to the Book of Mormon. I wonder if any Mormons can fill me in, or if Jana has written about this?

  • Jeff P.

    That’s a fair point Dave.

    Jana referred to parts of the Book of Abraham as ‘trippy’. I haven’t read it, but that is kind of my reaction to parts of Revelation, or Daniel.
    In my thinking, I read Revelation for a message that God is trying to communicate through a book of literature, rather than the details or specific form of communicating this message. Disbelieving peripheral claims or some specific claims of Daniel doesn’t diminish its message.
    It seems very reasonable for someone to approach this Book of Abraham the same way.
    Its important, however, that we are honest about this when we are doing it, and that we not criticize others for doing the same thing.

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  • rameumptom

    Jana, good article and discussion on the BoA.

    I’ve long held to the Catalyst Theory. Joseph’s translations all seem to be connected indirectly to documents. The BoM was “translated” without looking at the actual text. The Bible was “translated”, adding several chapters on Adam, Melchizedek, Enoch, Joseph and others. In the D&C, we find Joseph “translates” a piece of parchment that the apostle John wrote about his own translation (there’s a joke in there somewhere) and hid under a rock. Of course, the Book of Abraham falls under this schema of document acting as a catalyst for receiving ancient truths.

    As for the side discussions in the comments above, the problems LDS deal with in regards to the BoA and BoM are issues that all Christians deal with in regards to the Bible. Who really wrote the 5 Books of Moses? Are there one, two or three authors for Isaiah? How many of his epistles did Paul actually write?

    We must realize that just because Paul only wrote 1/2 of his epistles, does not mean there is no value in the other half. Nor does it mean that we should toss out Deutero-Isaiah because he wasn’t the original Isaiah.

    And so it is with the Book of Abraham. While we may never know how Abraham’s writings made it to us, they are rich in ancient thought and teaching. That Canaanites were a Semitic race and not black, does show poor research on the part of early Latter-Day Saints looking for scriptural support for their racist views. But the same holds true with the Bible, which justified slavery in the minds of many Protestants of the 19th century. We must learn to study all of these books with humility, open-mindedness, and with the original author’s thought in mind, rather than imposing our views onto the writing.

  • Raymond Takashi Swenson

    The single most significantndoctrine taught in the Abraham narrative is that humans arenliteral spirit children of God who lived an extended existence with our Father in Heaven before our birth, and that at least Abraham and other “noble and great ones” participated in the creation of our earth.

    The premortal existence has profound implications for the most gnarly problems of theology and philosophy, such as the problem of evil. Those implications are discussed by the late philosophy professor Truman Madsen in his book Eternal Man. The historical appeal of the idea is explored by Professor Terryl Givens in his book, When Souls Had Wings.

    It is also foundational for our relationship to God, and as the basis for the Mormon version of the ancient Christian doctrine of Theosis, still taught in the eastern Orthodox churches. It is the doctrine that is expressed in the Primary song, I am a Child of God, and in Eliza R. Snow’s hymn honoring our Father and Mother in heaven. So I think the Book of Abraham is pretty important to Mormon scripture.

  • Raymond Takashi Swenson

    The fragments that the Church recovered from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in 1967, and immediately publshed in the Church magazine, were owned by a domestic servant who worked for Emma Smith, Joseph’s widow. It is clear that the more significant part of the collection, includingnthe mummies, the hypocephalus (facsimile no. 2) and the very long scroll that contemporaries described as the source of the Book of Abraham, which included many rubrics, In red ink, were lost in the Chicago fire. Less than 200 hypocephali have actually been recovered by archeologists.

  • Ken Dahl

    Without the BofA there are a number of modern-day beliefs that have no other scriptural support. Eternal families comes to mind–something mentioned NOWHERE else in scripture. It makes one wonder, given a few scriptures here and there which contradict the whole idea . . .

  • Raymond Takashi Swenson

    The Book of Abraham is the most explicit Mormon scripture explaining our identity as the literal spiritual children of God the Father, present at, and in at least some cases, participating in the creation of our earth.

    There are profound implications of premortal life for the most difficult questions of theology and philosophy. They are discussed in Professor Truman Madsen’s book, Eternal Man, and the historical consideration of the idea by many philosophers and religios ministers through te ages is reviewed by Professor Terryl Givens in his book When Souls Had Wings.

    The actual papyrus fragments that were held by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York originated with omeone who had worked as a domestic in the home of Emma Smith, Joseph’s widow. The primary parts of the papyrus and the mummies were held by the family, but ended up in a museum in Chicago, and were burned in the great Chicago fire. The contemporary descriptions of the papyrus scroll said it was much longer than any surviving pieces, and included extensive rubrics, written in red rather than black ink. It is logical to conclude that the scroll was lost, along with the magnificent hypocephalus

  • Raymond Takashi Swenson

    Like the Book of Moses, which was received purely by revelation to Joseph Smith, without any physical record, the Book of Abraham contains a number of narrative elements which do not appear in the Bible. And like the Book of Moses, those non-biblical elements appear in many other ancent texts, almost all of which were not even theoretically available to Joseph Smith. These elements include proper names, which are known today through sources which were not available in English translation until the Twentieth Century.

    One of these non-Biblical elements is the story of the attempt by idol worshippers to sacrifice Abraham to their gods, with the assent of his father. It is attested in ancient rabbinical sources, and Muslim teachings. The names of the idolatrous gods have been confirmed in archeological and textual sources, along with the association of four idols with “the earth in its four quarters”. Hugh Nibley’s works have pointed out the accuracy of Joseph Smith’s description of several of the elements on the hypocephalus.

    In summary, Smith knew many details about the Abraham legend which were not available to him, or to most educated people of his day. If he was guesing, his guesses were remarkably prophetic in anticipating the discovery of ancient records in a variety of languages. He clearly dd not have ordinasry access to this information, so his sources were extraordinary.

  • “Then again, I am entirely a creature of my age. Mormons a century from now will likely find entirely different things to like or hate about the Book of Abraham.”
    With the foundation of Mormonism eroding, I don’t believe Mormonism will exist a century from now.