By Mine Own Hands Upon the Keyboard

My View of the Joseph Smith Papyri Debates
James L. Carroll

Go Back to: Egypt, LDS Doctrine

            In the last little while I have received several emails, and several questions in class, requesting my opinion on the Joseph Smith Papyri/Book of Abraham debate. From the anti-Mormons these letters usually read "you can read Egyptian and still believe in that Joseph Smith guy?" Questions from members usually read "can't you help me understand this mess, and all these anti-Mormon arguments out there?"

            I gave up on arguing with anti-Mormons a long time ago, and I don't really believe that such debates (which I feverishly engaged in when I was younger) actually lead anywhere but to wasted time and energy. I am much more interested in the many mysterious and wonderful insights that the gospel has to offer than I am in arguing with people who aren't going to believe the gospel if Moroni stood before them and hit them over the head with the golden plates.

After some cajoling however, I was convinced to enter the fray one last time. Why would I do this? Well, mostly because most of the material on the internet on this subject (both pro and con) is trash, and although a few good things have been said in F.A.R.M.S. or other published sources, such material has not made it to the internet in any recognizable form. Second, I thought that it would be nice to add the voice of one more person who can (to some extent) read the material, and who still has a testimony, a thing that one would consider impossible if you listened to the propaganda of the smug, overconfident anti-Mormon authors who often dominate the internet. They conveniently ignore the fact that there are many men who can read Egyptian a whole lot better than I can (and I might add, a whole lot better than most anti-Mormons who write on the subject can) who are still active believing members of the Church. Perhaps it is also because I want to show, once and for all, the true insignificance of this belabored debate. People on both sides take it far too seriously.

Before I can proceed, you should first be asking yourself, by what right / authority /or special wisdom can this guy presume to tell me what is going on? Of course, the answer is... by none. I am not a leader of the Church, and so can't declare doctrine; I am not even an "expert" on Church teachings if such a thing exists. My only claim to expertise in the realm of Church doctrine would be that I have probably read more of the Journal of Discourses than the average member of the Church, which would make me an expert on the trivia of the old opinions of men who died a hundred years ago, and surely not on the real doctrines of the Church. On the Egyptian side, what claim can I make to expertise? Well, I have taken one year of Middle Egyptian (the Joseph Smith papyrus was written in late Egyptian), and I took a semester of Coptic (at which I must warn you, I am truly inept).

There is only one thing therefore about which I can speak as an expert, and that is in the realm of my own testimony. I know that the gospel is true, and I know it for one simple reason. God has told me that it is so. There is therefore no doubt about the nature of the "Book of Abraham," the question is settled, and settled by God Himself. So the question is, if the Book of Abraham is authentic, what do you do about all these questions that people raise concerning these old dusty scroll fragments? My answer to this last question is the remainder of this essay.

First, I guess that I should take a second to go over the basics of the debate. It runs something like this (and yes, I know that I am leaving a lot out). Joseph Smith bought some Egyptian papyrus rolls, he looked at them, and got inspiration from God, and produced a book, called the "Book of Abraham." Then Joseph was murdered.

The papyri were split up, and sold. Most of them burned in a fire, and a few fragments were recovered by the Church. The Church published the papyrus, and enemies of the Church scrambled to point out that the papyrus contained a text which they called the "Book of Breathings" (incidentally, the text is actually called "the Book of Breathings Made by Isis" to distinguish it from another text known as the "Book of Breathings," which someone should really point out to them).

Now the question is being asked, "Does this show that Joseph Smith wasn't a prophet?" Of course it doesn't, and I can't imagine why it should. Most of the papyrus rolls are still missing, and presumed burned in a fire. It is possible that the actual book of Abraham might have been written upon one of these papyrus rolls. There are therefore long, drawn out, and technical debates raging about whether there is any evidence that Joseph Smith actually said that the papyrus fragments currently in our possession are the portion from which he claimed to have translated the Book of Abraham, or whether he claimed to have taken it from one of the other rolls, and evidence, far beyond the scope of this essay, flies in both directions. It gets even more confusing since multiple texts were often written on one roll, and a single drawing from a roll was often used to illustrate both texts simultaneously. Some evidence for this "missing roll" hypothesis comes from the fact that one reconstruction of a part of the missing text (from a description of the text by an Egyptologist who saw it before it burned), tantalizingly reads "The beginning of the book of ........." Abraham??? These debates are currently inconclusive, and there is evidence either way (usually dealing with the position of the facsimiles or with some scribbled notes by some men working with the papyrus in Joseph's day called the "Egyptian Alphabet and Grammar," but I won't bore you with the details). People have written long tedious essays about the dating of the papyrus. Others have written about the ancient owners of the papyrus, showing that they were men who might have owned texts like the Book of Abraham, and others have written long books on the history of the texts, where they went, how Joseph got them, and where they went after his death.

Other debates center on the translation of the facsimiles. In many cases Joseph Smith's interpretation of the facsimiles miraculously matches with the current Egyptological theories, and in other cases Joseph's interpretation doesn't match. Unfortunately, we can only compare Joseph Smith's interpretation of the facsimiles to what Egyptologists currently think the facsimiles meant, rather than what the Ancient Egyptians thought they meant. After all, no one really knows what the Ancient Egyptians thought they meant. These texts were intended to be only understood by an initiate, and we should therefore not be surprised if these facsimiles carried hidden meanings that the current scholars have not yet discovered. It is even possible that the average Egyptian living in the age when they were written would have had a difficult time interpreting these facsimiles correctly. What chance does the modern Egyptologist have?

However there is a more fundamental point. If the missing papyrus rolls showed up tomorrow, and didn't mention Abraham anywhere, that would mean nothing. Joseph Smith used the term "translate" very loosely. It is entirely possible that when he looked at the ancient Egyptian Papyrus, God chose to reveal to his mind words written anciently by His prophet Abraham, since those words were related to the Egyptian text before Joseph. This is how Joseph Smith "translated" the Bible after all. Joseph looked at a related text, while God miraculously restored the words of His ancient prophets. If this is the case, then all the arguments about the ancient papyrus rolls are irrelevant! No argument based upon them can ever show that Joseph Smith was not a prophet of God. This is the key point, and perhaps the most important one to remember.

I am not sure whether the actual text of the Book of Abraham was found on the portion of the rolls that burned, or whether Joseph Smith produced the text of the Book of Abraham without an Egyptian copy of the Book of Abraham actually sitting before him. I am understandably curious, but I don't really know the answer. Most of those who claim to know for sure are kooks, and we all know just how many of them there are on the internet. After all, judging from my earlier writings on the net (which are still there if anyone is curious) I was one of them for a long time.

What I do know, apart from the fact that Joseph Smith was a prophet of God, is that the text of the "Book of Breathings Made by Isis" is a very interesting text. Together with the Pyramid Texts, the Coffin Texts, and the Book of the Dead (to which it is related) the "Book of Breathings Made by Isis" contains ordinances for passing safely into the next life, passing tests, dangers, and angelic guardians. These texts have some very interesting similarities to Christian thinking, causing some "scholars" (so called) to theorize that Christianity simply evolved from some mix of Egyptian religion and Judaism. The Book of Abraham intriguingly provides an alternate explanation of why these similarities might exist (see Abraham 1:26). These texts also have some passages that many have noted (High W. Nibley immediately comes to mind) could be related to the Temple Endowment revealed by Joseph Smith to the Church at around the same time that he published the Book of Abraham.

In fact, the Book of Abraham was published in serial and its publication was never finished. When the last portion of the text was published, Joseph Smith promised more but it never came. However, within a few months of that last publication, Joseph Smith revealed the Temple Endowment in the upper room of his red brick storehouse. I find these facts intriguing. If the ancient owners of the Joseph Smith Papyri noticed the similarities between their temple related Book of Breathings Made by Isis and the temple related Book of Abraham, it might explain why they may have placed a copy of the Book of Abraham with their Book of Breathings Made by Isis. On the other hand, if Joseph Smith simply received the Book of Abraham by revelation while looking at an Egyptian document that didn't directly mention Abraham, then the similarities between the Egyptian text and the Book of Abraham may explain why God would choose to give Joseph Smith a revelation of the Book of Abraham while he was looking at the Egyptian papyrus.

It was because of the insights, and because of the intriguing similarities of Egyptian religion to Christianity (and to the temple in particular) that I attempted to learn to read Egyptian. Hopefully now I can spend more time discussing these similarities, and the insights they yield, rather than engaging in a debate that (by its very nature) can never yield any conclusions either way. If someone wants to know whether the Book of Abraham is truly an inspired document, I recommend that they read the text, and pray about it. Truth in this matter must, by divine design, come from God Himself and in no other way.