The Book of Abraham Revisited

© 1997 by H. Michael Marquardt. All rights reserved.

In the year 1835 at Kirtland, Ohio, Joseph Smith, Jr., leader of the Church of the Latter Day Saints, dictated what he claimed was a translation of an ancient Egyptian papyrus containing the writings of Abraham. Through the years, whenever the Book of Abraham was printed there were included with the printed text three drawings, each designated as a "facsimile" from this alleged Book of Abraham. In recent years the truth of such claims was shattered when some of the actual Egyptian papyri which Joseph Smith had in his possession were rediscovered and given to the LDS church. What does one do when what was represented to be Abraham's writings turns out to be totally unsupported by what is written in the Egyptian characters?1

The early LDS church leaders repeatedly claimed that the Egyptian text contained the actual writing of Abraham. When William W. Phelps, as a scribe for Joseph Smith, was writing in the latter part of 1835, he recorded that the record was a "Translation of the Book of Abraham written by his own hand upon papyrus and found in the Catacombs of Egypt."2 These words formed a preface in the Phelps manuscript to the opening portion of Joseph Smith's Book of Abraham (1:1 to 2:18) and clearly assert that the text that followed was Abraham's own writing.3

When the church headquarters was moved to Nauvoo, Illinois, the LDS Quorum of the Twelve Apostles was given the responsibility of managing the church publication called the Times and Seasons. Wilford Woodruff, who was the business manager at the time, recorded in his diary that

Joseph the Seer has presented us some of the Book of Abraham which was written by his own hand but hid from the knowledge of man for the last four thousand years but has now come to light through the mercy of God4

Accordingly, the Quorum of the Twelve issued an announcement in their periodical that the church wanted tithes sent to Nauvoo for publications, including "the record of Father Abraham."5 When Joseph Smith himself took over as editor of the Times and Seasons he dictated an article recorded by his scribe, Willard Richards, which stated in part:

A considerable quantity of the matter in the last paper was in type before the establishment came into my hands. . . . In the present no. will be found the commencement of the Records discovered in Egypt some time since as penned by the hand of Father Abraham which I shall continue to translate & publish as fast as possible till the whole is completed. . . .6

Only a small portion of this article was published, along with a notice to subscribers of the paper that Joseph Smith now became responsible for the publication's contents as the editor of the Times and Seasons.7 For Wilford Woodruff and the Latter-day Saints in Nauvoo, there was no question that the long awaited papyri writings which Joseph Smith had and was working on would soon be published and made available to members of the church and to all the world through their Times and Seasons press.

Willard Richards made a copy of the Book of Abraham text bearing the following heading:

A Translation of Some ancient Records that have fallen into our hands from the Catacombs of Egypt, purporting to be the writings of Abraham, while he was in Egypt, called the Book of Abraham, written by his own hand upon papyrus. THE BOOK OF ABRAHAM.8

This descriptive heading was then published in the Times and Seasons along with the opening portion of the text that was represented to be a book actually written by Abraham himself.9 In three separate issues of the church paper individual reproductions or "facsimiles" from this "Book of Abraham" record were printed from woodcut illustrations made by Reuben Hedlock. Mormon scholar Edward H. Ashment has demonstrated that these original woodcut drawings of Facsimile No. 1 (the lion-couch scene) and Facsimile No. 2 (the round hypocephalus) were not copied correctly in all details and include some incorrect restorations in damaged areas of the original papyrus.10

In the month of May 1844, Josiah Quincy and Charles Adams visited Nauvoo and viewed the Egyptian mummies and talked to Joseph Smith about the records. Charles Adams recorded in his diary:

He [Joseph Smith] then took us down into his mother's chamber and showed us four Egyptian mummies stripped and then undertook to explain the contents of a chart or manuscript which he said had been taken from the bosom of one of them. The cool impudence of this imposture amused me very much. "This," said he, "was written by the hand of Abraham and means so and so. If anyone denies it, let him prove the contrary. I say it." Of course, we were too polite to prove the negative, against a man fortified by revelation.11

From Adams and others who viewed the mummies and asked about the age of the manuscripts obtained with them it is clear that Joseph Smith and the early Mormons represented the Book of Abraham to have been penned by the very hand of Abraham himself. After Smith's death in June 1844, Franklin D. Richards published a pamphlet in July 1851, entitled, The Pearl of Great Price. In this publication was printed the little Book of Abraham, together with the three facsimile illustrations.

About five years after the three facsimiles were published in the Pearl of Great Price a young Egyptologist by the name of M. Theodule Deveria, who was working at the Louvre Museum in Paris, France, was asked to examine these facsimiles and comment on as much of the poorly copied Egyptian characters as could be deciphered. In commenting about Facsimile No. 3, Figure 5, he wrote:

The deceased led by Ma into the presence of Osiris. His name is Horus, as may be seen in the prayer which is at the bottom of the picture, and which is addressed to the divinities of the four cardinal points.12

Deveria was the first Egyptologist to note that what Mormons had published as a "Facsimile from the Book of Abraham" was really a funeral illustration for a corpse named Horus.

Later, when the mummies and papyri which Joseph Smith had owned were sold to the St. Louis Museum and put on display, Professor Gustavus Seyffarth, who had devoted considerable study to Egyptian, was also able to read the name of the person for whom Facsimile No. 3 was made. The following mentions his visit and observations:

. . . according to Prof. Seyffarth, the papyrus roll is not a record, but an invocation to the Deity Osirus, in which occurs the name of the person, (Horus,) and a picture of the attendant spirits, introducing the dead to the Judge, Osirus.13

In 1873 T. B. H. Stenhouse published his book, The Rocky Mountain Saints: A Full and Complete History of the Mormons, which republished Deveria's study of the Book of Abraham facsimiles. His book was republished four times by the year 1905.14 This helped to circulate more widely the information that the Book of Abraham material really was funerary in nature and that Facsimile No. 3 was made for an Egyptian named Horus.

The second edition of the Pearl of Great Price was issued in 1878, after Orson Pratt, Sr., had edited the work. It was here that the words "purporting to be" were removed from the heading of the Book of Abraham. George Reynolds during the following year wrote and published a defense of the Book of Abraham as a divine and ancient record.15 He apparently felt that he had answered some of the criticism dealing with the Book of Abraham, and on 10 October 1880, the Pearl of Great Price was voted upon and canonized, along with Smith's revelations. The vote was by General Conference of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints -- "The motion was seconded and sustained by unanimous vote of the whole conference."16 This made the Pearl of Great Price the fourth standard work of the LDS church and accordingly was to be regarded as scripture by the church. Later, in a new edition, it was again voted upon on October 6, 1902. The LDS church by these actions locked themselves into having to defend the Book of Abraham as an actual production of Abraham instead of an Egyptian funerary text.

In 1912 the Rev. Franklin S. Spalding published his own independent study of the Book of Abraham, which included letters from eight Egyptologists and Semitists who had responded to his inquiry concerning the interpretations of the three facsimiles published with the Book of Abraham text.17 All eight scholars independently reported that the facsimiles were funerary illustrations that had no relationship with Abraham.

In the next two years rebuttal articles appeared dealing with the scholars' findings published by the Rev. F. S. Spalding, attempting to establish an Abrahamic origin for the Egyptian material. Except for a few articles or books mentioning this controversy, nothing of importance occurred until the 1960s. On 27 November 1967, some "newly discovered papyri" (which had been in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City) were turned over to the LDS church. With these papyri was the original papyrus fragment from which the published Facsimile No. 1 had been copied.18

Translations of the Egyptian characters connected with the three Book of Abraham facsimiles have now been made by both Mormon and non-Mormon scholars and published for all to read. Not since Prof. Seyffarth and Deveria's time has the Book of Abraham material been examined so closely.

Original of Facsimile No. 1

Dr. Klaus Baer was the first person to publish a translation of the writing flanking the original of Facsimile No. 1. The following translation starts from the outer right-hand column and identifies it as an illustration intended to accompany the "Breathing Permit" written for a deceased named Hor(us), son of Tikhebyt:

Lines 1-3 give the titles, name, and parentage of the man for whose benefit the Breathing Permit was written:
. . . the prophet of Amonrasonter, prophet [?] of Min Bull-of- his-Mother, prophet [?] of Khons the Governor . . . Hor, justified, son of the holder of the same titles, master of secrets, and purifier of the gods Osorwer, justified [?] . . . Tikhebyt, justified. May your ba live among them, and may you be buried in the West. . . . Too little is left of line 4 to permit even a guess at what is said. Insofar as I can make it out, line 5 reads: May you give him a good, splendid burial on the West of Thebes just like. . . .19

Dr. Baer also gave a helpful explanation of the figures on the drawing made from the papyrus. The numbers in parentheses are those on Facsimile No. 1 published by Joseph Smith, added by Dr. Baer to facilitate comparison with Smith's comments upon various parts of the drawing:

The vignette shows the resurrection of Osiris (who is also the deceased owner of the papyrus) and the conception of Horus. Osiris (2) is represented as a man on a lion-couch (4) attended by Anubis (3), the jackal-headed god who embalmed the dead and thereby assured their resurrection and existence in the afterlife. Below the couch are the canopic jars for the embalmed internal organs. The lids are the four sons of Horus, from left to right Imset (8), Hapt (7), Qebeh-senuwef (6) [5], and Duwa-mutef (5) [6], who protect the liver, lungs, intestines, and stomach, respectively. At the head of the couch is a small offering stand (10) with a jug and some flowers on it and two larger vases on the ground beside it. The ba of Osiris (1) is hovering above the head.20
Facsimile No. 2

Michael Dennis Rhodes, a Mormon scholar skilled in Egyptian, has translated the hieroglyphic writing of Facsimile No. 2, a copy of an Egyptian hypocephalus, so-called because it was usually placed under (hypo-) the mummy's head (cephalus).

Edge [Figure 18]: I am Djabty in the House of the Benben in Heliopolis, so exalted and glorious. [I am] a copulating bull without equal. [I am] that Mighty God in the House of the Benben in Heliopolis . . . that Mighty God. . . .
Left Middle [Figures 11, 10, 9 and 8]: O God of the Sleeping Ones from the time of the Creation. O Mighty God, Lord of Heaven and Earth, the Netherworld and his Great Waters, grant that the soul of the Osiris Sheshonk, may live.
Bottom [Figures 17 and 16]: May this tomb never be desecrated, and may this soul and its possessor never be desecrated in the Netherworld.
Upper Left [Figures 21, 20 and 19]: You shall be as that God, the Busirian.
To the Left of the Standing Two-headed God [Figure 2]: The name of this Mighty God.21
This translation makes it clear that the material does not relate to Abraham (or even to Horus as Facsimiles No, 1 and No. 3 do), but to a deceased named Sheshonk.

Facsimile No. 3

Dr. Baer has also given an explanation of the figures on Facsimile No. 3, together with a reading of some of the hieroglyphs as far as he can recognize them from the woodcut copy.

"Facsimile No. 3" shows a man (5), his hand raised in adoration and a cone of perfumed grease and a lotus flower on his head (ancient Egyptian festival attire), being introduced by Maat (4), the goddess of justice, and Anubis (6), the guide of the dead, into the presence of Osiris (1), enthroned as king of the Netherworld. Behind Osiris stands Isis (2), and in front of him is an offering-stand (3) with a jug and some flowers on it. Over the whole scene is a canopy with stars painted on it to represent the sky. . . . The texts, poorly copied as they are, carry us one step further. As far as it can be made out, the lines of hieroglyphs below the scene read:
O gods of . . . , gods of the Caverns, gods of the south, north, west, and east, grant well-being to Osiris Hor, justified. . . .
The characters above and to the left of the man [Figure 5] are probably to be read: "Osiris Hor, justified forever." Even though Hor is a relatively common name in Greco-Roman Egypt, this does suggest that "Facsimile No. 3" reproduces a part of the same manuscript that "Facsimile No. 1" does. Hor's copy of the Breathing Permit would then have two vignettes, one at the beginning and another ("Facsimile No. 3") at the end, an arrangement that is found in other copies of the same text. . . . a comparison with the photograph shows that "Facsimile No. 1" was originally printed actual size, so the fact that "Facsimile Nos. 1 and 3" are about the same height may well be significant. It is what would be expected if they were from the same scroll.22

The same name Hor or Horus which Prof. Seyffarth read in the 1850s and that Deveria read from the printed Facsimile No. 3 is now confirmed as being on that facsimile as well as appearing in one of the columns of hieroglyphics of the original to Facsimile No. 1.

A portion of the original papyrus text which accompanied the illustrations used for Facsimile Nos. 1 and 3 was among the papyri recovered from the museum's archives.23 It contains the Egyptian characters that were copied down the left hand margin of the Book of Abraham Translation Manuscripts. It has also been translated by several scholars including Dr. Hugh Nibley, who has published a word-for-word translation of what all authorities agree are actually instructions for wrapping the mummy.

inside (of) the lake great (of) Chonsu born of Taykhebyt justified likewise after clasp - ed (two) arms his upon breast his being as wrap - ed like a book (or roll . . .): the Book of Breathings . . . being written according-to-what is . . . in (the sacred) writing (Books) on both inside and outside in linen (of) the king One places (or is placed) arm left his vicinity of heart his, having-been-done this for his wrapping on (the) side outer If makes one for him book this, then breathes he like souls (of the) gods for time and eternity.24

Dr. Baer's translation of the same text smooths out the stiffness of the Egyptian style into more flowing English, as follows:

Osiris shall be conveyed into the Great Pool of Khons -- and likewise Osiris Hôr, justified, born to Tikhebyt, justified -- after his arms have been placed on his heart and the Breathing Permit (which [Isis] made and has writing on its inside and outside) has been wrapped in royal linen and placed under his left arm near his heart; the rest of his mummy- bandages should be wrapped over it. The man for whom this book has been copied will breathe forever and ever as the bas of the gods do.25

From the above translations and explanations of the Egyptian writings and drawings scholars have determined that rather than giving a narrative story about Abraham, the texts indicate that they are funeral in nature.26 The LDS church should realize that identification of the Egyptian documents as the Book of Abraham and the canonization of it as scripture in years past is no reason to reject the identification of the rediscovered Egyptian papyri and published facsimiles are strictly Egyptian funeral texts. It is time accept the fact that the Egyptian papyri purchased by Joseph Smith are not authentic Abrahamic records recorded by the father of the faithful as was believed these many years.


Illustration 1 - Beginning of original papyrus scroll designated as part of the Book of Abraham.

Above: Vignette from a Roman era funeral papyrus acquired by Joseph Smith, Jr., in 1835. It is an illustration that accompanied a "Breathing Permit" which was to enable the corpse to live and breathe again in the next life. The hieroglyphic character encircled indicates that the deceased was named Hor or Horus. Other hieroglyphics indicate that his father was a priest named Osorwer and his mother was Tikhebyt.

Illustration 2 - Incorrect reconstruction of the beginning illustration of the original papyrus prepared for Horus.

Above: In his periodical,Times and Seasons, Joseph Smith identified the same illustration as a FACSIMILE FROM THE BOOK OF ABRAHAM, showing that he mistakenly thought this "Breathing Permit" was actually the work of the patriarch Abraham some two thousand years earlier.

Illustration 3 - Ending of papyrus scroll prepared for Horus. Reconstruction designated as part of the Book of Abraham.

Above: This is a copy of Facsimile No. 3 as printed in the Times and Seasons, issue of 16 May 1842, and represented to be from the "Book of Abraham." Figure No. 5 (second from the right) is the deceased person, identified as Horus in the characters above his hand and in the prayer at the bottom of the picture. Both Theodule Deveria and Gustavus Seyffarth read the name Horus in the 1850s. In fact, Prof. Seyffarth saw and read the original papyrus from which Facsimile No. 3 was copied. The reading of the deceased's name as Hor, or Horus, has been reconfirmed by the late Dr. Klaus Baer, Egyptologist at the Oriental Institute, Chicago, Illinois.


1. The Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, while in their earlier years they used the Book of Abraham (though never canonized by their conference), today consider this book as a non-scriptural, speculative writing of Joseph Smith. See W. Wallace Smith, Saints Herald 117 (March 1970):5; Richard P. Howard, "The Book of Abraham, in the Light of History and Egyptology," Courage: A Journal of History, Thought and Action, Pilot Issue (April 1970):33-47, and his articles entitled "Joseph Smith, the Book of Abraham, and the Reorganized Church of the 1970s," Saints Herald 117 (October to December 1970), and republished in A Decade of the Best (Independence, Missouri: Herald House, 1972), 186-211. See also Richard P. Howard, Restoration Scriptures: A Study of Their Textual Development, Second edition, revised and enlarged, (Independence, MO: Herald Publishing House, 1995), 192-210.

2. H. Michael Marquardt, comp., The Joseph Smith Egyptian Papers (Cullman, Alabama: Printing Service, 1981), 148; from Translation Manuscript No. 1 of the Book of Abraham, p. 1.

3. Jay M. Todd, The Saga of the Book of Abraham (Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret Book Co., 1969), 228, 324, hereafter cited as Saga.

4. Diary of Wilford Woodruff, entry of 19 February 1842, LDS archives; also in Saga, 221.

5. Times and Seasons 3 (1 March 1842):715.

6. "Joseph Smith to the Times and Seasons," Joseph Smith Collection, LDS archives.

7. Times and Seasons 3 (1 March 1842):710.

8. Book of Abraham Manuscript No. 4, p. 1, LDS archives; see photo in Brigham Young University Studies 11 (Summer 1971):389.

9. Times and Seasons 3 (1 March 1842):704, Joseph Smith as editor. Concerning the words "purporting to be," Dr. Hugh Nibley, in Abraham in Egypt (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1981), 3-4, claims that these words were deleted in 1851. However, it was actually the Book of Abraham published in 1878 that omitted the words. This was the second edition of the Pearl of Great Price published before canonization by the LDS church in 1880.

10. Edward H. Ashment, "The Facsimiles of the Book of Abraham: A Reappraisal," Sunstone 4 (December 1979):33-48. The Times and Seasons 1842 woodcut "facsimiles," though not correct or clear in all details, were better than those later published in edition of the Pearl of Great Price, by the LDS church. It was not until 1976 that there appeared in printings of the Pearl of Great Price either Facsimile No. 3 or all three Times and Seasons reproductions of these woodcuts. With the new 1981 edition of the Pearl of Great Price the facsimiles have been replaced by those produced when Joseph Smith was editor of the Nauvoo paper.

11. Diary of Charles Adams, entry of 15 May 1844, in Proceedings of the Massachusetts Historical Society 68 (1952):285.

12. First published in French in Voyage au Pays des Mormons, par Jules Remy, 2 vols. (E. Dentu, Paris, 1860), and in English translation in A Journey to Great Salt Lake City, by Jules Remy and Julius Brenchley (London: W. Jeffs, 1861), 2:539-46. Published in parallel columns were Joseph Smith's explanations of each facsimile with that of Theodule Deveria's interpretation. This quote is from page 546.

13. Catalogue of the St. Louis Museum, 1859, p. 45; cited in Saga, p. 298. Prof. Seyffarth saw the actual papyri on display.

14. T. B. H. Stenhouse, The Rocky Mountain Saints (New York: D. Appleton and Co., 1873), 513-19. Republished in the years 1874 (London), 1878 (London), 1900 (New York), and 1904 (Salt Lake City).

15. The Book of Abraham. Its Authenticity Established as a Divine and Ancient Record (Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret News and Publishing Establishment, 1879), 49 pp. This booklet, before it was published in final form, had previously appeared in the Deseret Evening News in serial form from December 1878 to March 1879. While the words "purporting to be" were deleted in the 1878 edition of the Pearl of Great Price, it has continued to be published in the "History of Joseph Smith," written for the 1 March 1842 date at Nauvoo in 1845. See "Manuscript History of the Church," Book C-1:1,277; Deseret News 5 (8 August 1855):1; Millennial Star 19 (14 February 1857):101, and History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, ed. B. H. Roberts (Salt Lake City, 1908), 4:524.

16. Millennial Star 42 (15 November 1880):724. In 1886 Deveria's examination of Facsimile Nos. 1 and 3 were published in W. Wyl [Wilhelm Ritter von Wymetal], Mormon Portraits . . . (Salt Lake City: Tribune Printing and Publishing Co., 1886):221-23.

17. Rt. Rev. F. S. Spalding, Joseph Smith, Jr., As a Translator (Salt Lake City, Utah: The Arrow Press, 1912). The brief comments by the eight Egyptologists and Semitists on Facsimile Nos. 1, 2, and 3 are contained in their letters, which are published in this booklet. While the Rev. Spalding was aware of Stenhouse's The Rocky Mountain Saints and A Journey to Great Salt Lake City, both of which included Theodule Deveria's examination. Spalding decided to make his own study by writing letters to various scholars. One of the scholars, Samuel A. B. Mercer, summarized the controversy in 1913 in his article, "Joseph Smith As an Interpreter and Translator of Egyptian," in The Utah Survey 1 (September 1913):4-36.

18. For a short detailed study of the controversy surrounding the Book of Abraham from the days of Joseph Smith to the first part of the 1970s, see Wesley P. Walters, "Joseph Smith Among the Egyptians: An Examination of the Source of Joseph Smith's Book of Abraham," The Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 16 (Winter 1973):25-45.

19. Klaus Baer, "The Breathing Permit of Hor," Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 3 (Autumn 1968):116-17.

20. Ibid., 118. The square bracketed numbers indicate that a number of Egyptologists identify Qebeh-senuwef with Figure 5 and Duwa-mutef with 6.

21. "A Translation and Commentary of the Joseph Smith Hypocephalus," Brigham Young University Studies 17 (Spring 1977):265, with footnotes to the text. The bracketed "Figures" refer to the numbers placed on Joseph Smith's reproduction of the hypocephalus to facilitate his reference to various parts of the drawing.

22. Baer, Dialogue 3 (Autumn 1968):126-27.

23. H. Michael Marquardt, The Book of Abraham Papyrus Found, 2nd ed., rev. and enlarged (Salt Lake City: Modern Microfilm Co. [now Utah Lighthouse Ministry], 1981), 36 pp.

24. The Message of the Joseph Smith Papyri: An Egyptian Endowment (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1975), 19-23.

25. Baer, Dialogue 3 (Autumn 1968):119-20.

26. Stephen E. Thompson, "Egyptology and the Book of Abraham, Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 28 (Spring 1995):143-60.


I highly recommended the article by Robert K. Ritner, Associate Professor of Egyptology at the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago "The 'Breathing Permit of Hor' Thirty-four Years Later," Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 33 (Winter 2000):97-119. See also Ritner, "'The Breathing Permit of Hor' Among the Joseph Smith Papyri," Journal of Near Eastern Studies 62 (July 2003):161-80.

See also Michael D. Rhodes, The Hor Book of Breathings: A Translation and Commentary (Provo, Utah: Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, Brigham Young University, 2002).

The latest book on this topic is Robert K. Ritner, The Joseph Smith Egyptian Papyri: A Complete Edition. Salt Lake City: Smith-Pettit Foundation, 2011. Limited edition. Also in paperback edition, The Joseph Smith Egyptian Papyri: A Complete Edition Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 2013.

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