The Oldest Biblical Text? Joseph Smith’s Book of Abraham Examined


Sandra Tanner

Article ID:



Aug 25, 2022


Nov 22, 2010

This article first appeared in the Christian Research Journal, volume 32, number 03 (2009). For further information or to subscribe to the Christian Research Journal go to:

In 1835 Joseph Smith, Jr., announced what he thought was the most important discovery in the history of biblical studies. It all began on July 3 when Michael Chandler brought his traveling exhibit of Egyptian mummies and papyri to the small Mormon community of Kirtland, Ohio. After examining the artifacts, Smith announced to his followers that the papyri contained the long-lost writings of Old Testament prophets Abraham and Joseph.1 Josiah Quincy, who visited with Smith in 1844, described his experience of being shown the papyri by Smith: “Some parchments inscribed with hieroglyphics were then offered us. They were preserved under glass and handled with great respect. ‘That is the handwriting of Abraham, the Father of the Faithful,’ said the prophet. ‘This is the autograph of Moses, and these lines were written by his brother Aaron. Here we have the earliest account of the Creation, from which Moses composed the first Book of Genesis.’”

By the time of Smith’s death, he had translated only a portion of the papyri that was attributed to Abraham. While this new record followed the creation story, it varied in significant ways from that of Genesis. Smith’s claim, if valid, would make these papyri the oldest biblical manuscripts in existence. Writing in 1938 Dr. Sidney B. Sperry, of Brigham Young University, boasted of the importance of the find:

The Book of Abraham will some day be reckoned as one of the most remarkable documents in existence…the author or editors of the book we call Genesis lived after the events recorded therein took place. Our text of Genesis can therefore not be dated earlier than the latest event mentioned by it. It is evident that the writings of Abraham…must of necessity be older than the original text of Genesis. I say this in passing because some of our brethren have exhibited surprise when told that the text of the Book of Abraham is older than that of Genesis.

Although the finding of the Dead Sea Scrolls in 1945 would eventually push the date of the oldest Bible manu scripts back to the second century BC, they still would not be as old as Smith’s claim for the writings of Abraham. Thus, if Smith’s assertion were accurate, the papyri in his possession would be priceless. The importance placed on the papyri can be seen by the fact that in 1835 the Mormons negotiated with Chandler to buy his collection for $2,400, a significant amount in the cash-strapped community.

Many people are aware that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS, Mormons) has additional writings it considers scripture besides the Bible. The most well known of these is the Book of Mormon, whose main storyline deals with an ancient group of Israelites who migrated to the Americas about 600 BC. However, few people are familiar with their other two sacred texts, the Doctrine and Covenants, containing revelations given to their prophets, and the Pearl of Great Price, composed of the Book of Moses (a revelation), the Book of Abraham (purported translation of papyrus), an extract from Joseph Smith’s revision of the Bible, and extracts from his Church history. While each of Smith’s additional scriptures are open to criticism, we will focus on the problems associated with his Book of Abraham.


After Joseph Smith’s death, when the Mormons were forced out of Illinois in the 1840s, most of the Church papers were brought west with Brigham Young. The Smith family retained possession of the Egyptian material, however, which later changed hands and over the course of years the papyri dropped from public view.

Like the Book of Mormon, Joseph Smith professed to translate the Book of Abraham from authentic ancient records. During this time the study of Egyptian hieroglyphs was in its infancy, which no doubt left Joseph Smith feeling free to offer his interpretation of the papyri without challenge. While Frenchman Jean-François Champollion had been involved in deciphering the Rosetta Stone in the 1820s, which proved to be the key to translating Egyptian hieroglyphs, his research was little known in the United States during Smith’s lifetime.

Joseph Smith first developed his Egyptian Alphabet and Grammar using various hieroglyphs from the papyri and then composed an English explanation. In July of 1835 he recorded in his history, “The remainder of this month, I was continually engaged in translating an alphabet to the Book of Abraham, and arranging a grammar of the Egyptian language as practiced by the ancients.”2

He worked on his translation for the next several years, finally publishing it in the March 1, 1842, issue of the Mormon newspaper Times and Seasons. The Book of Abraham was next printed in England in 1851 as part of a booklet, the Pearl of Great Price, which was later canonized in 1880. Included in the Book of Abraham were three illustrations taken from the papyri, labeled Facsimile No. 1, 2, and 3. Below are the three scenes with a brief explanation.

Facsimile No. 1

Smith described this as “Abraham fastened upon an altar” and “The idolatrous priest of Elkenah attempting to offer up Abraham as a sacrifice.”3 However, Egyptologists would later identify this as a standard scene from the Book of the Dead,4 showing the god Anubis overseeing the embalming of Osiris. Underneath the couch are four canopic jars used to store the person’s organs, representing the sons of Horus.5

Facsimile No. 2

In Smith’s purported translation of the text, he explained that the central figure represented “Kolob,” the first creation nearest to the “residence of God.” Other figures related to priesthood, various planets and stars, the measurement of time, and “God sitting upon his throne.”6 However, this object is known as a hypocephalus, a magical disc placed under the head of a mummy to aid the person in his journey after death.7 The figures represent well-known Egyptian deities. The Mormon copy is similar to a number of other such objects in various Egyptian collections around the world.8 Smith identified Figure 7 (lower right area) as “God sitting upon his throne,” while Egyptologists identify the figure as Min, the Egyptian god of male sexual potency, shown with an erection.9

Facsimile No. 3

Joseph Smith explained that this was a picture of “Abraham sitting upon Pharaoh’s throne,” with Pharaoh standing behind him. Abraham is said to be “reasoning upon the principles of Astronomy.”10 However, Egyptologists identify this as the Judgment Scene from the Book of the Dead, showing Isis standing behind the seated figure of Osiris. Standing in front of the seated figure, according to Smith, is a “Prince of Pharaoh.” Smith identified the next figure as “Shulem, one of the king’s principal waiters” and the black figure as “Olimlah, a slave belonging to the prince.” However, the three figures in front of Osiris have been identified as Maat (the goddess of truth), the deceased person (for whom the papyrus was made), and the black figure is the half-man, half-jackal deity Anubis.11


By 1860 Egyptology had advanced to the point where it could be used to test Joseph Smith’s ability as a translator. Even though the papyri were no longer known to be in existence, the printed facsimiles from the Book of Abraham could still be scrutinized. They were submitted to the French Egyptologist M. Theodule Deveria, who not only accused Joseph Smith of making a false translation but also of altering the scenes shown in the facsimiles.12

By the turn of the century the study of Egyptology had progressed considerably, as seen in the 1895 classic The Egyptian Book of the Dead, by Sir E. A. Wallis Budge. The growing body of knowledge on Egyptology led Rev. F. S. Spalding, Episcopal Bishop of Utah, to contact eight leading scholars of his day and request their evaluation of Joseph Smith’s illustrations in the Book of Abraham. These statements were published in 1912 under the title Joseph Smith Jr., as a Translator.

One of the scholars who examined Smith’s work was James H. Breasted, Ph.D., Haskell Oriental Museum, University of Chicago, who wrote: “These three facsimiles of Egyptian documents in the ‘Pearl of Great Price’ depict the most common objects in the mortuary religion of Egypt. Joseph Smith’s interpretations of them as part of a unique revelation through Abraham, therefore, very clearly demonstrate that he was totally unacquainted with the significance of these documents and absolutely ignorant of the simplest facts of Egyptian writing and civilization.”13

The other Egyptologists whom Spalding contacted rendered similar verdicts of Smith’s erroneous interpretations.

That same year the New York Times ran a large article with the startling headline, “Museum Walls Proclaim Fraud of Mormon Prophet.” The article quoted the various Egyptologists contacted by Bishop Spalding and gave an overview of the problems with Joseph Smith’s interpretation. The article explained, “Much of Bishop Spalding’s work was done in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in this city. The ten rooms of the Egyptian collection yielded proof in such abundance that any layman, even in Egyptology, can take the drawings as published in the sacred Mormon record and reproduced on this page of THE TIMES, and find dozens of duplicates of certain figures in them on the walls of the Museum and in its cases of Egyptian objects.”14

The following year saw another challenge to the facsimiles. Noted scholar Samuel A. B. Mercer published his article “Joseph Smith as an Interpreter and Translator of Egyptian” in 1913. Dr. Mercer observed, “No one can fail to see that the eight scholars [quoted in Bishop Spalding’s booklet] are unanimous in their conclusions. Joseph Smith has been shown by an eminently competent jury of scholars to have failed completely in his attempt or pretense to interpret and translate Egyptian figures and hieroglyphics.”15

Marvin Cowan, a Baptist missionary working among the Mormons, had been told by various Mormons that the pamphlet by F. S. Spalding was outdated, so in 1966 he decided to ask various scholars for their assessment. He sent copies of the Book of Abraham facsimiles to Richard A. Parker, of the Department of Egyptology at Brown University, and requested his opinion of the photos. Parker responded: “The pictures you sent me [from the Book of Abraham] are based upon Egyptian originals but are poor or distorted copies.…The explanations are completely wrong insofar as any interpretation of the Egyptian original is concerned.…Number 1 is an altered copy of a well known scene of the dead god Osiris on his bier with a jackal-god Anubis acting as his embalmer.”16

One has only to look at any credible source on Egyptian deities to see that the figures in the Book of Abraham facsimiles are standard images from the Book of the Dead.17 To suggest that Abraham would use pictures of pagan gods to illustrate the true God is in direct opposition to the teachings of the Old Testament. Genesis 17:1 records that God revealed Himself to Abraham saying, “I am the Almighty God.” Later God instructed Moses, “I am the LORD: and I appeared unto Abraham…but by my name JEHOVAH was I not known to them” (Exod. 6:2–3 KJV). In the Ten Commandments God specifically stated that He had delivered the children of Israel out of Egypt and that they were to reject all pagan deities, specifically stating that no one was to make any image or likeness of God (Exod. 20:2–4). Joseph Smith’s identification of these pagan deities with the God of Abraham makes no more sense than to claim that a statue of the Buddha actually represents Jesus Christ in prayer or claiming the Hindu goddess Parvati is actually the Virgin Mary.

Today the Book of Abraham contains the same claim of being an authentic translation of the papyri as was originally published in the Times and Seasons: “The Book of Abraham, Translated from the Papyrus, by Joseph Smith. 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.”18

While the facsimiles have come under attack, there was no way for the scholars to test Smith’s purported translation of the papyri, as it was assumed they had been destroyed. However, Smith’s translation would be put to the test in 1967 when a number of pieces of the long-lost papyri were presented to the LDS Church by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.19

After Joseph Smith was killed in 1844, the mummies and papyri were retained by his widow, Emma Smith. Some of these were later sold to the Chicago museum, which burned to the ground in the great Chicago fire of 1871. Thus it was assumed that the papyrus designated as the Book of Abraham had been destroyed. Actually, some of Smith’s papyri had been preserved and were eventually purchased by the Metropolitan Museum in 1947.20 Since the papyri were only dated to the time of Christ, and the museum had a number of examples from that period, the museum felt they could divest themselves of the pieces. Working through Prof. Aziz Atiya, of the University of Utah, they arranged the return of the papyri to the LDS Church.21 This was not exactly a gift, but had been made possible by an anonymous gift to the museum.22

Once photos of the papyri were printed in the 1968 Improvement Era,23 the official LDS magazine, scholars began the search to determine which piece Smith had utilized in his translation. The piece was identified by comparing Joseph Smith’s translation papers and his Egyptian Alphabet and Grammar with the papyri.24 It was soon determined that Smith had used characters from the piece of papyri identified as “XI. Small ‘Sensen’ text (unillustrated),”25 also referred to as the Book of Breathings (a condensed version of the Book of the Dead). On pages 30-31 is an illustration of the way the hieroglyphs line up on the papyri and the way they are aligned in Smith’s manuscript next to the English.

All of the first two rows of characters on the papyrus fragment can be found in the manuscript of the Book of Abraham that is published in Joseph Smith’s Egyptian Alphabet and Grammar.26 Other manuscript pages show that he used almost four lines of the papyrus to make fifty-one verses in the Book of Abraham. These fifty-one verses are composed of more than two thousand English words!27 A person does not have to be an Egyptologist to know that it would be impossible to translate more than two thousand words from a few Egyptian characters.

This piece, Joseph Smith’s XI Small “Sensen” text, has been translated by several Egyptologists with virtual agreement. Contrary to Smith’s version, the English translation takes up just slightly more space than the actual hieroglyphs. Professor Parker’s translation was published in Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought:

1. [……]this great pool of Khonsu 2. ‘Osiris Hor, justified], born of Taykhebyt, a man likewise. 3. After (his) two arms are (fast)ened to his breast, one wraps the Book of Breathings, which is 4.with writing both inside and outside of it, with royal linen, it being placed (at) his left arm 5.near his heart, this having been done at his 6.wrapping and outside it. If this book be recited for him, then 7.He will breath like the soul(s of the gods) for ever and 8.ever.28

Mormon scholars, realizing the problems of defending a literal translation for the Book of Abraham, have now proposed that either (1) Smith didn’t use the “Sensen” text and the piece Smith did use no longer exists or (2) it doesn’t have to be a literal translation of the papyrus, but could be a revelation triggered by looking at the artifacts. Some also propose that Smith used the drawings from the papyri only to illustrate his revelation, not that they originally were drawn to illustrate a composition by Abraham.29 However, the heading of the Book of Abraham still carries the official statement that it is a translation of the papyrus. If the Book of Abraham is a product of revelation, not an actual translation, and the facsimiles were not drawn to illustrate Abraham’s text, one wonders why the Mormons needed to invest so much money to acquire these pagan documents in the first place? In Joseph Smith’s day, the papyri were certainly presented to the public as actually being Abraham’s record.


The Book of Abraham consists of five chapters and three illustrations. The text begins with Abraham in “the land of the Chaldeans,” bemoaning the fact that his forefathers “were wholly turned to the god of Elkenah, and the god of Libnah, and the god of Mahmackrah, and the god of Korash, and the god of Pharaoh, king of Egypt.”30 The four gods that are listed are the same as Smith’s identification of the gods in Facsimile No. 1. Smith seems to have assumed that the Chaldeans (in the region of Iraq) shared the same religion as the Egyptians, with their priests answerable to Pharaoh. Chapter 1:2–3 relates Abraham’s ordination to the priesthood, wherein he is made a High Priest (thus reenforcing the LDS concept that the priesthood is necessary to act in God’s behalf). The chapter goes on to describe the founding of Egypt by Egyptus, a daughter of Ham. Verse 27 tells us that Pharaoh was “of that lineage by which he could not have the right of Priesthood.” This passage was long used as the scriptural justification for the LDS Church not to give its priesthood to blacks. Since 1978, when the Church finally gave blacks the priesthood, this verse has been ignored. In the current LDS college manual, The Pearl of Great Price Student Manual, the verse is not discussed. There is instead a quote from the First Presidency about the granting of priesthood to all worthy men “without regard for race or color.”31

Chapter 2 redefines the Abrahamic covenant as being the priesthood and endless posterity. This has been interpreted as meaning celestial (temple) marriage.32 The Book of Abraham was published at a time when Joseph Smith was trying to secretly introduce the doctrine of plural marriage to a few of the Church leaders and this text would have served as a reenforcement of his new teaching on the need for plural wives in order to increase ones’ posterity, to fulfill the law of Abraham.33 The chapter ends with God instructing Abraham to lie about Sarai being his wife and to say she is his sister. This contradicts Genesis 12:12–13 where it is Abraham, not God, who comes up with the idea of lying. One assumes that Smith redirected this story to justify himself to the Church leaders for his lying to his wife and the public about his secret polygamy. If God could tell Abraham to lie, why not Smith?

Chapter 3:21–27 introduces the concept of premortal existence, that men and women had a prior life (“coexisted”34) with God before being born on earth. Those who were “noble” in their pre-earth life (man’s first estate) were to be the “rulers” on earth (man’s second estate). This led to an interpretation that everyone’s birth on earth is a direct result of his/her worthiness in a prior life in heaven, thus the belief that those less valiant were born black while the righteous were born white.35 The Bible, however, clearly teaches that only the Godhead has eternal existence. We are God’s creation and did not have a spiritual existence prior to our birth on earth. When Jesus declared, “Before Abraham was, I am” (John 8:58 KJV), He was claiming to be truly God and that Abraham had a beginning. In Zechariah 12:1 we read that God “formeth the spirit of man within him” (KJV).

Chapters 4 and 5 of the Book of Abraham seem to be a rewrite of the Genesis creation story with the addition of multiple gods involved in the process. For instance, verse 3 reads, “And they (the Gods) said: Let there be light; and there was light.” Curiously, this contradicts his earlier revelation of Moses’ account: “And I, God, said: Let there be light; and there was light.”36 If Moses was as inspired as Abraham, why didn’t he understand that the creation was accomplished by a council of gods? During the early years of Mormonism, Joseph Smith preached the standard doctrine of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. However, by the 1840s he had begun to teach a plurality of gods, completely ignoring the biblical doctrine of one eternal, unchanging God and even contradicting his earlier writings.37


The Bible calls us to “test the spirits” and examine the teachings of those professing to be prophets.38 When we apply these tests to Joseph Smith and his book of scripture, we are left with (1) a book that is not an authentic translation of a document written by Abraham and (2) a text that teaches heretical doctrine. Therefore, the only course for the Christian is to reject both Joseph Smith and his scripture.


1 Joseph Smith, The History of the Church, vol. 2 (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1976), 236.

2 “Figures of the Past,” in Among the Mormons: Historical Accounts by Contemporary Observers, ed. William Mulder and Russell Mortensen (New York: Knopf, 1958), 136–37.

3 Sidney B. Sperry, Ancient Records Testify in Papyrus and Stone, Course of Study, Adult Department, M.I.A. (1938), 83.

4 Smith, vol. 2, 238.

5 Book of Abraham, Explanation of Facsimile No. 1, Pearl of Great Price, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1981.

6 Richard A. Parker, “The Joseph Smith Egyptian Papyri: A Preliminary Report,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, 3, 2 (Summer 1968): 86.


8 Pearl of Great Price, Explanation of Facsimile No. 2.

9 Rt. Rev. F. S. Spalding, Joseph Smith Jr., as a Translator (Salt Lake City: The Arrow Press, 1912), 26. Photo reprint by Utah Lighthouse Ministry under the title Why Egyptologists Reject the Book of Abraham.

10R. C. Webb, Joseph Smith as a Translator (Salt Lake City: Deseret News Press, 1936), 130, 165, 173, 175, 177, 179.

11 “Min Is Not God,” Salt Lake City Messenger, no. 111(November 2008),

12 Pearl of Great Price, Explanation of Facsimile No. 3.

13 Spalding, 23;

14 Deveria’s work was originally published in French in 1860 and then reprinted in English in A Journey to Great Salt Lake City, by Jules Remy and Julius Brenchley (London: W. Jeffs, 1861). Then in 1873 T. B. H. Stenhouse included Deveria’s work in his book The Rocky Mountain Saints: A Full and Complete History of the Mormons (New York: D. Appleton and Company). Included were side-by-side comparisons of Smith’s interpretation with Deveria’s explanation of the facsimiles, 513–19.

15 Spalding, 26–27.

16 “Museum Walls Proclaim Fraud of Mormon Prophet,” New York Times, Magazine Section Part Five, December 29, 1912;

17 Samuel A. B. Mercer, “Joseph Smith as an Interpreter and Translator of Egyptian,” The Utah Survey 1, 1 (September, 1913): 11.

18 Letter by Richard A. Parker, Dept. of Egyptology, Brown University, March 22, 1966.


20 Book of Abraham, Pearl of Great Price, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1981.

21 Jack E. Jarrard, “Rare Papyri Presented to the Church,” Deseret News, November 27, 1967, 1.

22 “The Facsimile Found—The Recovery of Joseph Smith’s Papyrus Manuscripts—An Interview with Dr. Fischer,”Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 2, 4 (Winter 1967): 56.

23 “The Facsimile Found: The Recovery of Joseph Smith’s Papyrus Manuscripts—A Conversation with Professor Atiya,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, 2, 4 (Winter 1967): 51.

24“An Interview With Dr. Fischer,” 64.

25 “New Light on Joseph Smith’s Egyptian Papyri,” Improvement Era, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (February 1968), 40–41.

26 Grant S. Heward and Jerald Tanner, “The Source of the Book of Abraham Identified,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, 3, 2 (Summer 1968): 92–97.

27 Improvement Era, February 1968, 41. See Jerald and Sandra Tanner, Mormonism: Shadow or Reality? (Salt Lake City: Utah Lighthouse Ministry, 1987), 311.

28 Joseph Smith’s Egyptian Alphabet and Grammar, photo reprint by Utah Lighthouse Ministry, 1966.

29 Tanners, 312–13.

30 Richard A. Parker, “The Book of Breathings (Frag. 1, the ‘Sensen’ Text, With Restorations from Louvre Papyrus 3284),” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought (Summer 1968): 98.

31 See articles on Book of Abraham in Encyclopedia of Mormonism, vol. 1, ed. Daniel H. Ludlow (New York: Macmillan Publishing, 1992), 132–38.

32 Book of Abraham 1:1–6.

33 The Pearl of Great Price Student Manual, Religion 327, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 2000, 32.

34 PGP Student Manual, 34.

35 Doctrine and Covenants 132:30–32.

36 “Premortal Life,” Encyclopedia of Mormonism, vol. 3, ed. Daniel H. Ludlow (New York: Macmillan Publishing, 1992), 1123.

37 Speech of Elder Orson Hyde, delivered before the High Priests’ Quorum, in Nauvoo, April 27, 1845, printed by John Taylor, 30.

38 Book of Moses 2:3, PGP.

39 Isa. 43:10–11; 44:6; 45:5. See Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, comp. Joseph Fielding Smith (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1977), 345–47, 369–73. For his earlier teaching on God, see Book of Mormon, 2 Nephi 31:21; Alma 11:27–29; 1835 Doctrine and Covenants, Lectures on Faith, Section V; 1981 Doctrine and Covenants 20:28.

40 Deut. 13:1–3; 18:22; 1 John 4:1; 2 Pet. 1:15–16; Acts 17:10–12.

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