Addendum #4- Gospel Topic Essays, Translation and Historicity of the Book of Abraham

The Papyri

After the Latter-day Saints left Nauvoo, the Egyptian artifacts remained behind. Joseph Smith’s family sold the papyri and the mummies in 1856. 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.24 In 1967, the museum transferred these fragments to the Church, which subsequently published them in the Church’s magazine, the Improvement Era.25

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 1.26

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.27 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.

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.28 Moreover, documents initially composed for one context can be repackaged for another context or purpose.29 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.

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.  The text of the Book of Abraham (chapter 1, verses 7-17 [1]) directly references facsimile 1, assisting the reader to understand the depiction of the priest of Elkenah and the various idolatrous gods.  Additionally, Joseph translated the facsimiles themselves and these were also confirmed to be an incorrect translation. [2]   In fact, it was not uncommon for ancient Egyptian vignettes to be placed some distance from their associated commentary.30

Addendum:  There is no factual way to refute that Joseph’s translation was incorrect, as confirmed by all notable Egyptologists.   Arguments that the text is unrelated to the papyri are false because the text directly references the facsimiles and the facsimiles themselves were incorrectly translated.

Meaning: From a secular perspective, the explanations provided from the church and its apologists are actual attempts at deception because they argue that adjacency of the text to the figures to which it alludes can be called into question, however, this does not negate the fact that the facsimiles are, in and of themselves, an incorrect translation, and that they are directly referenced in the text of the Book of Abraham.  From a faithful perspective, belief in the doctrines expounded in the the Book of Abraham is a personal choice and cannot be refuted historically.  Believing that the book could have been received similarly to how other revelations were received does not violate historical evidence.




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