The Book of Abraham is a sacred text of the church. The church claims it is a translation by Joseph Smith from an ancient Egyptian papyrus he acquired. The book states that it contains “the writings of Abraham,” the biblical patriarch and that they are “written by his own hand, upon papyrus.” The contents are attributed to Abraham and shed light on topics such as the pre-mortal existence, the creation, and the nature of the cosmos. This Book has been a subject of scholarly discussion and debate, particularly due to questions regarding the source material and the translation process.
A Translation of some ancient Records that have fallen into our hands from the catacombs of Egypt. The writings of Abraham while he was in Egypt, called the Book of Abraham, written by his own hand, upon papyrus.Book of Abraham Introduction
To careful readers, many clues show the text is not authentic and cannot be realistically credited to Abraham. There are anachronisms and other issues with the text. One that quickly stands out is that he refers to the land of Chaldea and its inhabitants, the Chaldeans. The first reference is only a couple of words into the first sentence of the first verse.
1 In the land of the Chaldeans, at the residence of my fathers, I, Abraham, saw that it was needful for me to obtain another place of residence;Abraham 1:1
The problem is, although Chaldea is a real place in real history, there was no Chaldea or land of the Chaldeans in Abraham’s day. It didn’t exist by this name until more than a thousand years later.
Joseph Smith would have made this mistake in his fake scripture because he was deriving part of this Abraham story from Genesis 11 which mentions Abraham living in “Ur of the Chaldeans.” However, it is mentioned in Genesis because the narrative of Abraham in the Bible was written, or at least edited, by later Jewish scribes who were referring to the place as it was known in their day, not in the time of Abraham.
Clearly, Joseph Smith didn’t know this, and, as a result, created this anachronism in the Book of Abraham. This mistake is as bad as any anachronism found in the Book of Mormon.
The anachronisms found in the Book of Abraham must take a back seat to the actual translation issues with the papyri. The church responds to the papyri issue in a Gospel Topic Essay entitled Translation and Historicity of the Book of Abraham. They state clearly that the artifact fragments Joseph had and used in translation passed to his family and were then sold. They were believed eventually to have been lost in the Chicago Fire of 1871. However, some fragments ended up in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City and once discovered were transferred to the church in 1967. The church was eager to study these findings and even published many of the fragments in the church magazine The Improvement Era in February 1968.
None of the characters on the papyrus fragments mentioned Abraham’s name or any of the events recorded in the book of Abraham. Latter-day Saint and non-Latter-day Saint Egyptologists agree that the characters on the fragments do not match the translation given in the book of Abraham… 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.Gospel Topic Essay: Translation and Historicity of the Book of Abraham, The Papyri
So even the church confirms that the papyri we have today which are at least part of what Joseph claimed to translate, and that include the facsimiles he uses in the scriptural text, are not about Abraham, and are a common funerary text. This means these papyri are really nothing too special or unique and certainly not from Abraham. The dates don’t line up, the contents don’t line up, and the story doesn’t line up.
The Catalyst Theory
The best alternative solution believing scholars can come up with is to redefine what translation means. They want to make the papyri into simply a catalyst to Joseph’s revelations about Abraham which he then wrote and assumed was a literal translation.
Alternatively, Joseph’s study of the papyri may have led to a revelation about key events and teachings in the life of Abraham, much as he had earlier received a revelation about the life of Moses while studying the Bible. This view assumes a broader definition of the words translator and translation. According to this view, Joseph’s translation was not a literal rendering of the papyri as a conventional translation would be. Rather, the physical artifacts provided an occasion for meditation, reflection, and revelation. They catalyzed a process whereby God gave to Joseph Smith a revelation about the life of Abraham, even if that revelation did not directly correlate to the characters on the papyri.Gospel Topic Essay: Translation and Historicity of the Book of Abraham, The Papyri
So the best case they can think of is that the papyri aren’t even a translation. But this still leaves us with the problem of anachronisms, perhaps even more so, since if it were a translation the anachronisms could be blamed on some scribes who copied the papyri or some other suggestive story to pass blame. This is the same direction the studies are going with Joseph’s translation of the Book of Mormon. Now that the church is being upfront that he used his peep stones in his hat to translate the Book of Mormon, it’s not a translation either. To accept it as a translation of the Gold Plates, also assumes a broader definition (meaning changing the meaning of the words) of translator and translation. More and more we’re finding out that the gold plates were not used in translation, and that Joseph was reciting a book he literally pulled out of his hat.
But if they want to showcase the Book of Abraham and/or the Book of Mormon as direct revelation from God coming to his prophet and seer using the papyri as a catalyst to help Joseph into the right frame of mind, then why would God include anachronisms in the direct revelation? God would presumably know that Chaldea didn’t exist in Abraham’s time, and Josphe didn’t know where it was either, so why include that erroneous fact? Is God just testing our faith? Is he placing stumbling blocks in our path to weed out the lazy learners? It more points to a forgery where Joseph was skilled at taking what he found in the bible and repackaging it with his own theological ideas (or more often as not, stolen theological ideas) into a new text that felt authentic to many. The papyri were more a prop of Joseph to claim he was translating again. But this was a source that others could see and still (at the time) no one could verify – since no one knew Egyptian at the time.
Gospel Topic Essay Historic Claims
In this Gospel Topic Essay the church even suggests some real ancient proof that the book is authentic, though they also couch this claim with the suggestion that the translation and historicity cannot be proven, and the real value of the scripture is the truth it contains.
The veracity and value of the book of Abraham cannot be settled by scholarly debate concerning the book’s translation and historicity. The book’s status as scripture lies in the eternal truths it teaches and the powerful spirit it conveys.Gospel Topic Essay: Translation and Historicity of the Book of Abraham, Conclusion
The suggested ancient proof the essay does include though is the following:
- The Book of Abraham mentions ancient human sacrifice, and archeology has shown that ancient cultures performed human sacrifice.
- The Book of Abraham mentions “the plain of Olishem” and archeologists have discovered an ancient town called “Ulisum” in northwest Syria. But if we consider the test that states in verse 10 that the priests of Pharoh offered human sacrifice “upon the altar which stood by the hill called Potiphar’s Hill, at the head of the plain of Olishem,” and verse 20 “Potiphar’s Hill was in the land of Ur, of Chaldea.” This discovered “Ulisum,” while matching phonetically, is not even in the same area. And again, these verses reference Chaldea, a place that didn’t receive its name until centuries after Abraham would have lived and written this record “by his own hand.”
- “Further, Abraham 3:22–23 is written in a poetic structure more characteristic of Near Eastern languages than early American writing style.” – They quote 2 verses and claim that the structure of these two verses is more characteristic of Near Eastern languages than to early American writing styles… ok, but what about early American writing that is trying to sound like Near Eastern? They are basically saying that Joseph imitated other languages in these two verses really well, so, since he did a good job in two verses, the rest of it is probably authentic. Let’s just give Joseph a break.
- … etc
These claims are very very weak claims which attempt to appease anyone who is asking to be fooled. They are grasping at straws trying to find anything that can make someone choose to believe. How did the Book of Abraham factor into your deconstruction? What did you think about the text when you were a believer? Did you allow yourself to study it and buy into the apologetics? Share your thoughts below in the comments or share your story at wasmormon.org!
- h/t https://www.reddit.com/r/exmormon/comments/120jlnb/huge_anachronism_in_the_book_of_abraham_chaldeans/