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Have Egyptologists Found Abraham in the Papyri? Which Papyri?

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Kerry Muhlestein, professor of ancient scripture at Brigham Young University, PhD in Egyptology at UCLA in 2003.

It was long thought that all of the papyri owned by Joseph Smith had been destroyed in the Great Chicago Fire. Thus it was a news-making surprise when 11 fragments from his collection came to light in 1967. Soon many people were investigating how these fragments had survived. We learned that before the majority of the papyri had traveled to Chicago, a small portion had been given to the Huesser family as partial payment for housekeeping services. The Huessers later sold their collection to the Metropolitan Museum, which eventually gave the collection to the LDS Church.i Unsurprisingly, the papyri immediately caused people to think of testing Joseph Smith’s revelatory abilities. Many members of the LDS Church assumed that the text on the papyri which surrounded the original of Facsimile One was the source of the Book of Abraham. Would they now be able to prove that he was indeed blessed with divine revelatory abilities? Anti-Mormons also assumed that the text adjacent to the Sacrifice of Abraham Vignette was the source of the Book of Abraham and were excited about the opportunity to disprove Joseph Smith’s prophetic abilities.ii

Sadly, neither of these groups took the time to carefully and rigorously examine their assumptions. This continues to lead to a great deal of confusion. What should have happened was that instead of writing and speaking about research based on these assumptions, all involved should have done their homework. It was natural to presume that the text around a picture would have something to do with the picture. However, the problem lies in failing to recognize that we have made assumptions or in not carefully examining or testing those assumptions.iii The problem was not in making an assumption, since we cannot move research forward without presuming something and then trying to prove or disprove it; that is the nature of the academic process. However, after this logical first step of presumption, the next step should have been to examine whether or not we had evidence that could support or discredit the conjecture. This is the step that almost everyone has failed to take. It is surprising how much stock has been put in the opinions and writings of people who either never realized they were making an assumption or who chose not to investigate that assumption. Almost all of the discussion about the Book of Abraham stems from the assumption about the writing surrounding the Sacrifice of Abraham Vignette, an assumption that almost everyone swallows without thinking. In this way, people have opened themselves up to an academic hoax. They willingly or unknowingly allow themselves to be deceived by accepting an untested theory as fact. As a result, many have gone through academic and religious confusion because of a faulty method.

So how should we test the assumption? The first step should be to examine the text itself to see if it contains any clues about its relationship with its associated pictures (or vignettes, as we call them in Egyptology). The second would be to examine similar papyri from the same time period to see if the texts and their vignettes were typically adjacent to each other. The third way to test this assumption would be to examine the accounts of eyewitnesses who saw the papyri and knew from what material Joseph Smith said he was translating. Modern speculations about the extant papyri or the role of the Kirtland Egyptian Papers in the translation of the Book of Abraham must take a backseat to eyewitnesses during Joseph Smith’s day.iv

Elsewhere I have dealt with the first two methods of testing the assumption, and while they do not demonstrate the assumption to be false, they do show that we are not safe in making the assumption. Both the text itself and contemporary papyri suggest that the text next to the vignette was not necessarily associated with it.v An extensive article is in process that more fully examines the eyewitness accounts of the papyri during Joseph Smith’s day. Here we can give just a few highlights.

Most people who saw the papyri and heard something about the source of the Book of Abraham did not specify whether that source was on the scrolls or the fragments. Here are some examples from the few that did: One witness wrote that Lucy Mack Smith showed her the papyri and “opened a long roll of manuscript, saying it was ‘the writing of Abraham and Isaac, written in Hebrew and Sanscrit [sic].’”vi Another who was shown the papyri by the Prophet’s mother said “She produced a black looking roll (which she told us was papyrus) found upon the breast of the King, part of which the Prophet had unrolled and read.”vii Another girl who frequently saw the papyri as a child said “in the arms of the Old King lay the roll of papyrus from which our prophet translated the Book of Abraham.”viii

I have spent four years gathering every eyewitness account I can find. I am sure that there are some out there that I haven’t found, but there can’t be many. I have not fully sifted through the implications of every account (which is why the article is a little way from being completed), but I have given everything at least an initial examination. As the research stands now, it is clear that to the extent that the translations came from the papyri (an idea that is possible, but not sure) the long roll was the source of the Book of Abraham. To argue otherwise is to argue against the only historical evidence we have.                                                                                                                              

i  H. Donl Peterson, The Story of the Book of Abraham (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1995), 236; John Gee, A Guide to the Joseph Smith Papyri (Provo: Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 2000), 9.

ii See Jerald and Sandra Tanner, The Case Against Mormonism (Salt Lake City: Utah Lighthouse Ministry, 1968), 2:159, 3:330. An example of Latter-day Saint ideas is found in Hugh Nibley, “A New Look at the Pearl of Great Price”, Improvement Era, January 1968.

iii Examples of research that pursues unquestioned assumptions are Grant H. Palmer, An Insider’s View of Mormon Origins (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 2002), 16; Wesley P. Walters, “Joseph Smith Among the Egyptians: An Examination of the Source of Joseph Smith’s Book of Abraham,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 16 (1973), 25-45, especially 33; and Charles M. Larson, By His Own Hand upon Papyrus: A New Look at the Joseph Smith Papyri, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Institute for Religious Research, 1992), 199–226, 151.

iv On the Kirtland Egyptian Papers see Brian M. Hauglid, A Textual History of the Book of Abraham: Manuscripts and Editions (Provo: Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship, 2010); also Brian M. Hauglid, “Thoughts on the Book of Abraham,” in No Weapon Shall Prosper, Robert L. Millett, ed. (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2011), 242-253.

v Kerry Muhlestein, “Egyptian Papyri and the Book of Abraham,” in The Religious Educator 11/1 (2010): 90-106; and Kerry Muhlestein, “Egyptian Egyptian Papyri and the Book of Abraham B(?) A Faithful, Egyptological Point of View” in No Weapon Shall Prosper, Robert L. Millett, ed. (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2011), 217-241.

vi Charlotte Haven to her mother, 19 February 1843, cited in “A Girl’s Letters from Nauvoo,” Overland Monthly (December, 1890), 624.

vii “M”, Friends’ Weekly Intelligencer; vol. 3, no. 27, October 7th, 1846, 211.

viii Jerusha W. Blanchard, “Reminiscences of the Granddaughter of Hyrum Smith,” Relief Society Magazine, September 1922, 9.

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  1. Alex Reply

    Just so I understand, let me restate what I see as the main point here.

    The article states the characters around the “Sacrifice of Abraham” vignette are not necessarily related to it. This means we can’t assume those characters are the source of the Book of Abraham.

    What about the fact that copies of the Abraham manuscript, as written by Joseph’s scribes, place Egyptian characters in the margin and these characters correspond to characters found in the papyrus? In other words, the beginning of the Book of Abraham corresponds to the beginning of the papyrus, starting after the first vignette, character for character.

    How does this fact not show that the found papyrus was the source for the Book of Abraham?

  2. Lukas Olson Reply

    Are the three eye witness accounts you’ve shown above the complete list of accounts? If there are more, can you provide them, along with the associated source? Thanks!

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