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Book of Abraham
The Book of Abraham is a book of ancient scripture translated by the Prophet Joseph Smith from ancient papyri. It is now included in the Pearl of Great Price, one of the books that members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons) consider scripture in addition to the Bible, the Book of Mormon, and the Doctrine and Covenants. The book contains important teachings about the creation, God’s covenant with Abraham, the preexistence, or pre-earth life, of man, the nature of God, and the eternal mission of Jesus Christ as our Savior.
Origin and History of the Book of Abraham
Michael Chandler, an Irish immigrant, had acquired 4 mummies and three scrolls of papyrus from an Italian amateur archaeologist named Antonio Lebolo. Lebolo had explored the region around Thebes in Egypt between 1817 and 1821. He brought out eleven mummies and numerous papyri. At his death, he willed them to Chandler, who was a relative. While touring with the artifacts through northern Ohio, Chandler visited the Prophet Joseph Smith in July, 1833, in Kirtland, Ohio, because he had heard that the Prophet could translate ancient records. Upon inspecting the records, the Prophet told Chandler what he thought about them. Chandler then gave the Prophet a certificate saying that his conclusions agreed with those of several eminent scholars who had looked at the records previously.
The Prophet realized that some of the scrolls included some of the writings of the patriarch Abraham. Joseph and the Church bought both the mummies and the scrolls (since Chandler refused to sell just the scrolls) for $2,400, a large sum, given both the time and the impoverishment of most of the Mormons then living in Kirtland.
Joseph described the scrolls as follows: “The records of Abraham and Joseph, found with the mummies, is beautifully written on papyrus, with black, and small part red, ink or paint, in perfect preservation” (History of the Church 2:348). Joseph immediately began translating the records with God’s aid. He worked on the translation until the end of December. He stopped translating in 1836 as he grew busy building the Kirtland Temple, the first Mormon temple, and various other concerns.
Over the next few years, persecution, and the work of leading the Church kept him from the translation, though he freely showed the mummies and the records to any visitor who inquired. He also made arrangements to have them published. In 1837, the Church paid Reuben Hedlock to make all preparations necessary to publish the records. Persecution again kept them from completing the work. Finally, in March of 1842, as he was living in Nauvoo, Illinois, the new headquarters of the Church, he was able to continue translating. Reuben Hedlcok prepared woodcuttings of three vignettes, or pictures, which related to Abraham. One was a hypocephalus depicting God and the organization of the heavens, and the other two illustrated events from Abraham’s life. The Prophet published the vignettes in the Church’s newspaper, The Times and Seasons, on May 16, 1842.
The members of the Church were very excited about the discovery of these ancient records, for it gave them more knowledge about the Gospel and God’s dealings with his biblical prophets. The book was reprinted numerous times over the next few decades. Unfortunately, though, when the Mormons were driven out of Nauvoo by mobs in 1846, and made their historic exodus to Utah led by Brigham Young and the other modern apostles, the mummies and original papyri were left behind.
Lost for a time, and they eventually ended up in Chicago, where they were assumed to have been destroyed in the great Chicago fire of 1871. In 1967, Dr. Aziz S. Atiya, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, found eleven fragments of the original papyri which unfortunately had been damaged and were not "in perfect preservation," as Joseph had seen them.
Much has been said by anti-Mormons about these fragments containing nothing relating to the Book of Abraham. However, among the remaining papyri, was "facsimile 1, an artistic rendering in ancient Egyptian style of the attempted sacrifice of Abraham by his father to Egyptian gods. The facsimile is part of Joseph Smith's translation, which includes the story from Abraham's youth, when he was still living in Ur of the Chaldees. The eleven pieces, turned over to the Church included a letter signed by Emma Smith Bidamon, Joseph's widow, and the Prophet's son, Joseph Smith III. Atiya said, "I was electrified. I recognized immediately the original of Facsimile 1 in the Pearl of Great Price. Although it had been damaged some, I knew it was the one Joseph Smith had" (Church News, 12/2/1967).
Scholars, both Mormon and non-Mormon, have thoroughly studied these papyri. Brigham Young University professors such as Hugh Nibley, John Gee, and Michael D. Rhodes have written insightfully about the Book of Abraham and the papyri. Some of their works are available on the website for the Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies at BYU. Their research has shown that Joseph Smith's translation agrees with many ancient traditions about Abraham that were unknown to people in America during Joseph Smith's life.
In 1851 Mormon Apostle Franklin Richards, while overseeing church work in England, gathered together some of Joseph Smith’s translations and revelations and published them as the Pearl of Great Price. Members of the Church reprinted it frequently over the next few years. Finally in 1880, the Church accepted the Pearl of Great Price, and hence the Book of Abraham, as part of the official scriptural canon or Standard Works.
Content and Importance
The Book of Abraham has five chapters. Chapters 1 through 2 include previously lost details about Abraham’s early life and his fight against the idolatry of his society and even of his own family. It recounts how pagan priests tried to sacrifice him to their gods, but an angel appeared and rescued him. Chapter 2 includes important information about God’s covenant with Abraham, and how it would be fulfilled. Chapters 3 through 5 are a vision in which God reveals much about astronomy, the creation of the world, and the creation of man. It agrees precisely with Moses’ account of the creation, except that it includes even more detail.
In addition to the text, there are three facsimiles of vignettes from the papyrus. One depicts Abraham about to be sacrificed by a priest; the second is the hypocelaphus which contains important insights about the organization of the heavens. The final picture shows Abraham teaching in the Pharaoh’s court.
The Book of Abraham is an important and powerful testimony of God and His work among men. It also is powerful evidence that Joseph Smith was a true prophet of God. Without God’s aid, the Prophet could not have brought this book forth. It contains many important teachings about God’s perfection and omniscience, the divine mission of Jesus Christ, and the purpose of man’s existence. Through it, one can answer the most important questions of life: ‘who am I?’; ‘where did I come from?’; ‘why am I here?’; and ‘where am I going?'
Garr, Arnold K., Donald Q. Cannon, and Richard O. Cowan, eds. Encyclopedia of Latter-day Saint History. Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret Book Company, 2000.
Smith, Joseph. Encyclopedia of Joseph Smith’s Teachings. Eds. Larry E. Dahl and Donald Q. Cannon. Salt Lake City, Utah: Bookcraft, Inc., 1997
Smith, Joseph. History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Second Edition. Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret Book Company, 1980.