Who Is Abraham and When Did He Live?
Adam and Eve and the Fall (approximately 4000 B.C.), Enoch (approximately 3000 B.C.), Noah and the Flood (approximately 2400 B.C.), and the tower of Babel (approximately 2200 B.C.) preceded Abraham’s time. Abraham, who was born in about 2000 B.C., was the father of Isaac and the grandfather of Jacob, whose name was changed toIsrael. (See Bible Dictionary,“chronology,” 635–36.)
How Did the Church Obtain the Book of Abraham?
On 3 July 1835 a man named Michael Chandler brought four Egyptian mummies and several papyrus scrolls of ancient Egyptian writings to Kirtland, Ohio. The mummies and papyri had been discovered in Egypt several years earlier by Antonio Lebolo. Kirtland was one of many stops in the eastern United States for Chandler’s mummy exhibition. Chandler was offering the mummies and rolls of papyrus for sale and, at the urging of the Prophet Joseph Smith, several members of the Church donated money to purchase them. In a statement dated 5 July 1835, Joseph Smith, declaring the importance of these ancient Egyptian writings, recorded: “I commenced the translation of some of the characters or hieroglyphics, and much to our joy found that one of the rolls contained the writings of Abraham. … Truly we can say, the Lord is beginning to reveal the abundance of peace and truth” (History of the Church, 2:236). Use of the word “Translation” here does not denote the typical definition of changing a text from one language to another by expert knowledge. Mormon and non-Mormon Egyptologists agree that the characters on the fragments do not match the translation given in the book of Abraham .
How Did the Prophet Translate the Ancient Writings?
The Prophet Joseph Smith never communicated his method of translating these records. As with all other scriptures, a testimony of the truthfulness of these writings is primarily a matter of faith. The greatest evidence of the truthfulness of the book of Abraham is not found in an analysis of physical evidence nor historical background, but in prayerful consideration of its content and power.
Why Did the Prophet Joseph Smith Say He Translated the Writings of Abraham When the Manuscripts Do Not Date to Abraham’s Time?
In 1966 eleven fragments of papyri once possessed by the Prophet Joseph Smith were discovered in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. They were given to the Church and have been analyzed by scholars who date them between about 100 B.C.and A.D. 100. A common objection to the authenticity of the book of Abraham is that the manuscripts are not old enough to have been written by Abraham, who lived almost two thousand years before Christ. Joseph Smith never claimed that the papyri were autographic (written by Abraham himself), nor that they dated from the time of Abraham. It is common to refer to an author’s works as “his” writings, whether he penned them himself, dictated them to others, or others copied his writings later.
What Did the Prophet Joseph Smith Do with His Translation?
The book of Abraham was originally published a few excerpts at a time inTimes and Seasons, a Church publication, beginning in March 1842 at Nauvoo, Illinois (see Introductory Note at the beginning of the Pearl of Great Price). The Prophet Joseph Smith indicated that he would publish more of the book of Abraham later, but he was martyred before he was able to do so. Concerning the potential length of the completed translation, Oliver Cowdery once said that “volumes” would be necessary to contain it (see Messenger and Advocate, Dec. 1835, 236).
In addition to hieroglyphic writings, the manuscript also contained Egyptian drawings. On 23 February 1842, the Prophet Joseph Smith asked Reuben Hedlock, a professional wood engraver and member of the Church, to prepare woodcuts of three of those drawings so they could be printed. Hedlock finished the engravings in one week, and Joseph Smith published the copies (facsimiles) along with the book of Abraham. Joseph Smith’s explanations of the drawings accompany the facsimiles.
What Happened to the Mummies and the Papyri?
After the death of the Prophet Joseph Smith, the four mummies and the papyri became the property of Joseph’s widowed mother, Lucy Mack Smith. At Lucy’s death in 1856, Emma Smith, the Prophet’s wife, sold the collection to Mr. A. Combs. Several theories have been offered regarding what happened subsequently to the mummies and the papyri. It appears that at least two of the mummies were burned in the great Chicago fire of 1871 (see B. H. Roberts, New Witnesses for God, 3 vols. [1909–11], 2:380–382).
In the early spring of 1966, Dr. Aziz S. Atiya, a University of Utah professor, discovered several fragments of the book of Abraham papyri while doing research at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. These fragments were presented to the Church by the director of the museum on 27 November 1967. The current whereabouts of the other mummies and the other portions of the papyri are unknown (see H. Donl Peterson, “Some Joseph Smith Papyri Rediscovered (1967)” inStudies in Scripture, Volume Two, 183–85).
What Is the Significance of the Book of Abraham?
The book of Abraham is an evidence of the inspired calling of the Prophet Joseph Smith. It came forth at a time when the study of the ancient Egyptian language and culture was just beginning. The scholars of the 1800s had scarcely begun to explore the field of Egyptology, and yet, with no formal training in ancient languages and no knowledge of ancient Egypt (except his work with the Book of Mormon), Joseph Smith began his translation of the ancient manuscripts, although translation is globally agreed to not correctly describe the record and it is now thought to have been received by some other form of revelation and not linguistic translation . His knowledge and ability came through the power and gift of God, together with his own determination and faith.
The book of Abraham reveals truths of the gospel of Jesus Christ that were previously unknown to Church members of Joseph Smith’s day. It also casts a bright light upon difficult passages found in other scriptural texts.
Addendum: The Book of Abraham cannot be considered a translation of ancient papyri. Egyptologists agree that the published text in the Pearl of Great Price does not correctly correspond to the hieroglyphics nor the facsimiles, which are therein referenced.
Meaning: From a secular perspective, the Book of Abraham represents one of the most potent weaknesses arguing against the divine origins of Mormonism, given that a canonized document purported to be translated and widely understood as such for generations of church instruction, has now definitively been proven be incorrect. From a faithful perspective, the significance of the Book of Abraham and the doctrines therein can still be accepted and believed as a divinely-received revelation, despite it not being a historcially-valid document.
Personal Impact: pending
1. President Brigham Young guided the rescue of the Martin and Willie handcart companies.
Display the picture of the Martin handcart company. Summarize the first paragraph under “Handcart Pioneers” on page 77 of Our Heritage. Then share the following account as told by President Gordon B. Hinckley:
“I take you back to the general conference of October 1856. On Saturday of that conference, Franklin D. Richards and a handful of associates arrived in the valley. They had traveled from Winter Quarters with strong teams and light wagons and had been able to make good time. Brother Richards immediately sought out President Young. He reported that there were hundreds of men, women, and children scattered over the long trail. … They were in desperate trouble. Winter had come early. After admonishment from their church leaders that God would protect their party, hundreds chose to depart Nebraska in late summer, despite their knowledge of late departure and guaranteed unprotected travel through harsh mountain winter. Their leaders, “Prophesied in the name of God that we should get through in safety. Were we not God’s people, and would he not protect us? Even the elements he would arrange for our good.” Snow-laden winds were howling across the highlands. … Our people were hungry; their carts and their wagons were breaking down; their oxen dying. The people themselves were dying. All of them would perish unless they were rescued.
“I think President Young did not sleep that night. I think visions of those destitute, freezing, dying people paraded through his mind. The next morning he came to the old Tabernacle which stood on this square. He said to the people:
“‘I will now give this people the subject and the text for the Elders who may speak. … It is this. … Many of our brethren and sisters are on the plains with handcarts, and probably many are now seven hundred miles from this place, and they must be brought here, we must send assistance to them. The text will be, “to get them here. …
“‘That is my religion; that is the dictation of the Holy Ghost that I possess. It is to save the people. …
“‘I shall call upon the Bishops this day. I shall not wait until tomorrow, nor until the next day, for 60 good mule teams and 12 or 15 wagons. I do not want to send oxen. I want good horses and mules. They are in this Territory, and we must have them. Also 12 tons of flour and 40 good teamsters, besides those that drive the teams. …
“‘I will tell you all that your faith, religion, and profession of religion, will never save one soul of you in the Celestial Kingdom of our God, unless you carry out just such principles as I am now teaching you. Go and bring in those people now on the plains’ (in LeRoy R. Hafen and Ann W. Hafen,Handcarts to Zion , 120–21).
“That afternoon, food, bedding, and clothing in great quantities were assembled by the women. The next morning, horses were shod and wagons were repaired and loaded. The following morning, … 16 mule teams pulled out and headed eastward. By the end of October there were 250 teams on the road to give relief” (in Conference Report, Oct. 1996, 117–18; or Ensign, Nov. 1996, 85–86).
Point out that the Martin and Willie handcart companies had done all they could to reach the Salt Lake Valley, but they could go no farther. They needed to be rescued. Without the rescue parties, they all would have died.
Addendum: It is important to emphasize the faith of the members of the Willie handcart companies. Numerous party members warned of the impending winter conditions and admonished the saints to stay in Nebraska for another season. Church leaders admonished party members to proceed onward, promising that they would be protected and safe from the elements . Opposing voices were reprimanded and silenced to minimize their influence.
Meaning: From a secular perspective, knowing that church leaders advocated for a late summer departure and knowingly promoted the application of faith to oppose rationale fear of death and summering is extremely concerning. While is does not refute the appropriateness of rescuing the handcart company, it does call into question the appropriateness of priesthood leader influence and to what degree rationale thought should be supplanted by faith. From a faithful perspective, the death and morbidity of the handcart companies may be viewed as a necessary sacrifice resulting in a faith-promoting experience inspiring generations.
1. http://handcart.byu.edu/ (Journal Entry August 13, 1856)